Civility and Social Citizen Credit: Is this where we're headed?

It’s civility month in my town. Our libraries are hosting training in how to have civil conversations, how to listen deeply, how to stop the judgment that comes up when we hear something that contradicts our beliefs.

Our country is deeply divided and politics has become a blood sport.

Our president seems to take pleasure in pitting Americans against each other. Some white people are waking up to the reality that it sucks to not be white. Others are pushing back against cultural shifts toward acceptance and wishing for “the good ole days” (which were only good for white men in power, but they’ve never had to think about that).

This divide and my yearning for civility got me to thinking: How can we reward good behavior? How can we teach our kids how to be kind? How can we change the vitriol online to one of understanding different viewpoints?

What if civility is so far gone that we have to re-engineer it into our culture with a system that watches everyone all the time and rewards the behavior we want to see?

Would that even work?

(I’m suspending all the civil rights issues to play with this. Obviously, the government and big business watching me scares the pants off of me.)

This episode of the podcast of “Planet Money” is fascinating because that’s exactly what China is doing.

China, with a population of 1.4 billion people, is creating a social citizen credit system that gives privilege to individuals with good behavior and takes privilege away from those who aren’t good team players. If you want to take a fast train, you’d better be a good citizen or you’ll be banned. If you have a cell phone, your voicemail message can be changed to reflect that you aren’t trustworthy and need to pay your bills.

The government is collecting data on speeding tickets and DUI’s and asking big companies to share their data about consumer habits. There are also “neighbor watchers”: In China, you might be reported if you yell at someone, don’t pay your debts or just aren’t nice.

For example, a company can report a consumer who purchases diapers and the government deems them responsible, while a consumer who buys video games is deemed lazy. These purchases affect their score and their ability to navigate their world efficiently.


China is piloting this policy in several cities now and expects to have a social score for everyone by 2020. Since they don’t have a traditional credit score system (think FICO and Equifax, etc), there’s a “trust deficit”. Until now, there hasn’t been an effective way to get all citizens to pay their bills, pay back debt and act for the greater good.

Here in the United States, we know the consequence of not paying a bill—it gets reported to our credit score and affects our ability to buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a house and the terms associated with the purchases.

It’s shocking to me that most Chinese citizens support the social citizen credit.

One reason they give is that these standards will also be applied to Chinese companies and that’s a big deal. There have been countless food quality scandals and many Chinese buy foreign products because they don’t trust that Chinese products are safe. This would be a way to guarantee they’re dealing with a company with integrity.

Fascinating, right?

Where would you start if you were in charge in China? What about the United States—how do we calm the meanness and “fight fair” with a level of civility?