China may be teaching the ANC a thing or two about controlling us

CCTV camera. Picture: iStock

The world’s most populous country made headlines for its recent R370bn ‘gift’ to SA. A version of its 200 million cameras may also be heading our way.

Facebook. A place to connect with friends, see how the old school bully is doing or become a fact-checker on ‘news’ articles posted in one’s timeline.

In spite of the social media giant vowing to remove ‘fake news’ (a term I detest – call it what it is: libel or bollocks) from its platform, the battle to do so still sees some nonsense slipping through the cracks. Just the other day I spied a promoted ‘article’ in my timeline announcing that Elon Musk was quitting Tesla and investing his billions in a bitcoin startup. The article in question had the CNN Tech logo in the top corner, but the URL gave it away. On top of that, the article had a link that would allow me to invest in the startup. So, it wasn’t just a ‘fake news’ story, it was an internet scam, promoted on Facebook as both a genuine news story and an opportunity for yours truly.

Facebook, do better please.

False news stories are so ubiquitous on social media that I’ve come to the point that nearly every single news story that appears in my timeline causes me to head straight towards Snopes as a reflex. Working in a newsroom in South Africa removes some of this busywork – I didn’t need to fact check this week’s story about a BLF spokesperson saying white existence in South Africa is a crime (it was true, believe it or not) – but I still see the odd headline pop up on Facebook that causes me to raise a quizzical eyebrow.

For example, last night I spied an article entitled “Leave No Dark Corner’ (click on the link, it’s well worth it) in which ABC news outlined China’s plan to build “a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, ‘social credit’ will bring privileges — for others, punishment”.

Scrolling through the article, I read that China’s government was in the process of road-testing a system in which it plans to use the 200 million CCTV cameras that constantly watch its citizens, collect data on their activities and assign each person a score, based on their behaviour. It basically turns everyday life into a kind of game, in which one can lose or gain points with every action they partake in.

Citizens start with a base of 800 and can earn points by behaving responsibly – say, buying nappies rather than booze in the supermarket – and that puts them on track to take advantage of benefits, such as renting a car without a deposit. However, they can lose points, not only through their shopping choices, but through the actions of friends and loved ones – if you date or marry someone with a low rating, your Social Credit drops too. Those with a low enough score can be punished through house arrest, unemployment and a ban on leaving the country.

According to the article, China is on track to implement Social Credit as a real thing by 2020.

“Yes,” I thought, “and I’ve watched Black Mirror too. Snopes, here I come!”

Snopes didn’t have anything on Social Credit in China, but then Google was enough to stop the Elon Musk bitcoin scam, so I thought I’d give it a try. To my horror, I found out that what I’d just read about China’s Social Credit scheme was indeed completely true. It has been covered by some outlets as far back as April of this year. The pit in my stomach only deepened when I remembered that China, one of South Africa’s closest allies, had recently ‘gifted’ our government R370 billion over a three-year period.

Now, before I stand accused of being part of the tinfoil-hat brigade, hear me out. First off, only a fool would believe that China would invest that sort of money in South Africa without getting something out of it. Sure, you could argue that the Eastern superpower is more interested in say, owning our infrastructure, and that money could be for Telkom, Eskom or any other parastatal it thinks it needs.

That having been said, a more cyber-connected South Africa could look like a more valuable prize in the long run, and since the Beijing regime is more used to dealing with the ANC than any other party, that money could be put towards ensuring the ANC stays in power. If the last municipal elections were anything to go by, the ANC needn’t worry about constituencies situated in rural areas – where, at present Social Credit, a scheme that is very tech-heavy (smart cities, big data, fibre optic connectivity and oodles of CCTV cameras) wouldn’t work anyway. But South Africa’s urban conurbations are a different story. Following the vote count in 2016, the ANC became perhaps the only ruling party in the world that did not boast at least a controlling vote in its country’s major cities.

Social Credit, if implemented here, could take steps towards rectifying that. If that sounds like pie in the sky thinking, cock an eye at the country’s Cyber Crimes Bill, which still hasn’t made it out of committee. This is because, while it does have good aspects – it makes hacking as well as revenge porn illegal – it also contains legislation that could threaten whistleblowers, investigative journalists and even people who make memes that are deemed offensive. These aspects dovetail nicely with the view of any regime that wants to keep a tight grasp on any citizen activities it may take a dim view of.

Look, I’m not saying we’re about to see CCTV cameras multiplying like rabbits across our cities. I also don’t expect fibre to suddenly start snaking through the streets like The Flash. But when one of our closest allies starts to look like it’s straight out of an episode of Black Mirror, I do give pause for thought.

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