Everything about China’s new “social credit system” sounds dystopian. The stated aim of the system is to “provide the trustworthy with benefits and discipline the untrustworthy”.

US talk show host Stephen Colbert was alarmed enough to delve into what’s going on. And he didn’t mince his words on The Late Show: “If you thought the way Facebook tracks you was scary, it’s got nothing on the Chinese government, which just unveiled a system of monitoring and grading every citizen’s behaviour.”

Colbert succinctly explained how the social credit score actually works – “bizarre” would be a useful word to describe it. According to Colbert, each person starts with a score of 1,000 points, which are reduced or increased for bad or good behaviour, respectively. And this isn’t determined by the law alone.

For example, Chinese citizens won’t lose points only for breaking the law – getting a traffic ticket, say. Nor will they gain points only for law-abiding actions like making their payments on time. Since the aim is to score the “trustworthiness” of a person and to “purify society”, the score also factors in things like jaywalking, buying too many video games, or committing heroic acts.

“Even though China has got over a billion people, they’ve got a terrifying way of enforcing this,” said Colbert, adding that the country’s massive and growing network of surveillance cameras that don’t miss a thing.

Colbert had one piece of advice, though: “China, if you want to purify something, maybe start with your air.”