WeChat isn’t China’s Facebook. It’s something bigger.

It’s often hard for people outside of China to wrap their heads around the vast capabilities of WeChat. Writing it off as a “knock-off Facebook” does it an injustice. In fact, it might be the most potent form of propaganda China has ever employed.

“China’s App for Everything” may appear to be but a copycat of an American social media platform, one of dozens that emerged after Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp were all banned in the country, but the functions of WeChat certainly don’t stop there.

WeChat Pay allows a user to buy items with a QR code on their phone. WeChat Messaging has nearly phased out texting and phone calls in China. You can hail a ride through WeChat. File a police report. Book a doctor’s appointment. It is not unheard of to go entire days without leaving this one app.

Now imagine if all that online activity you conduct on WeChat was evaluated and compiled into a single digitized score. A higher number would grant you access to some cushy perks, maybe an upgrade on your flight, maybe a raise at work. But a lower score might limit your access to jobs, flights, loans. This effectively cuts you out of China’s modern state, where interactions are almost entirely conducted electronically.

It’s not just the premise of a season 3 episode of Black Mirror. Rather, these are the governing principles of China’s Social Credit System, a quantifiable way to patrol the online activities of China’s billion online netizens.

With the rising status of social media in China, an inherently decentralized system that presents a challenge to the government’s control over speech, the state has moved beyond blatant censorship and has instead shifted to a more subtle management of popular opinion, stealthily sanitizing language and using suppression tactics that have real-world effects for the user. Netizens and the censorship regime have come to represent political struggle within the nation.

Announced in 2014 and expected to be fully rolled out by 2020, the Social Credit System is funded by Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, and Alibaba, China’s Amazon. Both companies already collect a staggering amount of data on their billion-plus users. What you buy with WeChat pay, where you go when you hail a WeChat taxi, what you say about the government on WeChat Message. It’s all being watched.

Much like a fiscal credit score, a Citizen Score is measured on a scale between 350 and 950 points but is garnered via online activity. Netizens can raise this score by paying bills on time or by buying products online that demonstrate “normal” societal behavior. Purchasing diapers on Alibaba signals a person raising a child; a person who then might be less likely to challenge the government’s recent botching of a vaccine contamination, for example. Points are added.

But the score also takes into account online conversations. It is a self-regulated censorship strategy that pits users against one another, putting the onus on the reporter to get others to behave properly. Discussing the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 would be grounds for lost points. Simply being connected to someone discussing the Tiananmen Square protests implicates you into potential subversive activity. Points are subtracted.

Critics say it’s Orwellian. The government says it is a way of “encouraging trustworthiness” from citizens.

“WeChat is like a semi-private place,” says Rongbin Han, a cyberpolitics expert at the University of Georgia in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. “In the past, we knew there had always been censorship, but we felt we could still say things in private. Now, the control is penetrating deeper.”

Though points are factored in virtually, its repercussions are concrete. People with high scores can get upgrades on their hotel rooms or bumped-up to a first class seat on trains.  

But people with low scores can be — and have already been — barred entry on an airplane or fired from their job. Their ability to move autonomously up the social ladder in China is strapped. The Social Credit System acts as both the carrot and the stick.

How you work, socialize, and get around in China’s modern landscape is dictated by your level of political compliance. Using politically-sensitive words, Tiananmen Square, for one, would trip artificially-intelligent state censors and might get you blocked from WeChat. No longer would you be able pay for items using your WeChat account in a state that has virtually gone cashless. No longer would you be able to connect with friends and family members. And, just maybe, no longer can you spread your seditious ideas.

It is this sleight of hand that illustrates the paradox of the Chinese internet. Its omnipresence means you can’t escape it. But to stay on it, you must follow its rules. This allows the Chinese government basic autonomy to implement just about anything it wants.

And China is beginning to follow through on this promise. Since the announcement the Social Credit system, WeChat has begun to issue electronic identification cards in place of government-authenticated ones. It is become difficult to see the line between what is and isn’t the government.

Online censorship is but one piece of China’s puzzle to silence its political dissenters. Since the internet arrived in the country in 1994, the Central Government has tried overt ways to control online activity within the parameters of its censoring mechanisms. China’s web freedom ranks 176th out of 180 in the world according to the World Press Freedom Index, narrowly edging out the likes of North Korea and Syria.

Even today, dissidents like director and activist Ai Weiwei are frequently thrown in jail for their online presence, their homes razed. These all-too-frequent instances depict a government that has systematically tried to stamp out any and all opposition, a way to maintain legitimacy for an authoritarian system that has proven unsustainable for other nations.

Whereas social networks have been a lightning rod for political activism around the world, used as an organizing tool to topple dictators during the Arab Spring movement of 2011 and 2012, China’s advanced e-government leaves little room for political expression. Its leaders, using real-world repercussions like social credit scores, actively stop convergences of overwhelming political thought: the watchful eyes that surveil a virtual Tiananmen Square.

Social media in China acts as a virtual reform camp. The Chinese internet is governed by the same jurisdiction as the nation itself. The Great Firewall, China’s censorship infrastructure, defines its virtual borders.

“What is defined as sensitive is constantly changing and users aren’t often told why they’re being punished,” said Qiang Xiao, founder of the California-based China Digital Times, a watchdog for Chinese censorship issues. “The result is that people don’t know where the red line is until they cross it.”

This sentiment is echoed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a speech in 2014, he advocated that “Chinese media must serve the party.” As he consolidates power within China, the internet bends to his demands.

With social media as its primary outlet for propaganda, China is seamlessly combining the economic benefits of market-oriented capitalism with its authoritarian control. Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, the great liberalizer, famously analogized opening Chinese society to the internet in the early 90: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”

By making social media a requisite to function in China, the government is shutting the window on “flies” — the general public — in stealthier ways than ever before.

In this way, the Social Credit System is the most recent, and most advanced, way the Chinese government has found to control political speech. And it could also prove to be the most severe, facilitating a hyper-cautious culture not seen since the days of the Cultural Revolution.

Whereas netizens once raced to beat censors by slightly altering or misspelling sensitive words, the Social Credit System has the possibility to turn the race into who can behave the most properly.

China, as one of the world’s largest technology exporters, could easily adapt this infrastructure elsewhere in the world. If we are not careful, the social credit system could drastically alter the free and interconnected geography of the online world. It is time to be vigilant.

Featured Image Source: WeChat Logo