China’s Social Credit System; rumour or reality?
China’s Social Credit System (SCS) is more complex than Western media has given it credit for (pun intended). Not only is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempting to regulate it’s 1.6 billion citizens through combining its multifaceted surveillance technology, hoards of big data and convenient ubiquity of smart phone usage, but within the mainland and beyond its borders, comprehension of what the SCS actually entails varies – from total ignorance, to profound agreement or disagreement.
Nations outside China trying to implement a system even remotely similar to the SCS would (theoretically) be met with revolt and riot. Or would they? You can’t protest in China, and I wouldn’t advocate trying. China is an empire; it is an autocracy with Chinese characteristics. Stuff gets done, and it gets done fast. It is not, and will never be, a democracy. As soon as the West can accept this and stop trying to map its own values and systems onto that of China, perhaps it’s media could start to untangle the SCS and offer real, deep insight into what is going on. That’s unlikely to happen, so I’ve decided to do it for them.
Afterall, the scale and speed at which China is undertaking arguably the world’s largest social experiment, is unprecedented. I outline what the SCS is exactly, who is affected, the feasibility of technological capabilities successfully operating the SCS, insight from Chinese advocators of the SCS as well as stark opposers, and finally that variations of the SCS have been rolled out across the globe – and that such a system is not confined to China.
The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own (or that of the interviewees) and are not affiliated with any of my past, present or future employers. Interview subjects have been granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of material discussed.
- G, 27, Beijing 北京 (Undertaking a PhD at Tsinghua University, CCP member)
- Z, 23, Shanghai 上海 (Recent graduate of Law, Oxford University)
According to the overall planning outline for the construction of a Social Credit System (2014–2020), which was issued by the State Council on June 14th, 2014 for public circulation, the SCS will focus on four areas:
- “honesty in government affairs” (政务诚信),
- “commercial integrity” (商务诚信),
- “societal integrity” (社会诚信), and
- “judicial credibility” (司法公信)
According to this law, the SCS is founded on “laws, regulations, standards and charters” and is based on “a complete network covering the credit records of members of society and credit infrastructure”. It seeks to “commend sincerity and punish insincerity” by “building a harmonious socialist society” – within which citizens are expected to carry forward “sincerity and traditional virtues” in the hope that citizens will become more honest and trustworthy, thereby stimulating competitiveness and progressing civilization. The official rhetoric is rather poetic, so I’m going to break it down.
This essentially means that the CCP are nudging people towards what they deem as more desirable behaviour through a softer, more invisible authoritarianism. For example, the “insincere” will be punished with travel bans and higher interest rates on loans whilst the “sincere” will be rewarded with exclusive leisure offers and better school choices for their children. Certain APPs have started to employ the SCS, however it remains unclear exactly how the CCP will infiltrate this system into each and every citizens’ daily life.
Do you think that the benefits of the SCS outweigh any violations of citizens’ privacy, rights and freedoms? Do you believe this is the best way for the CCP control citizens’ behaviour?
G, 27, Beijing 北京: 是的。如果你关注社会热点，就会发现上述四点是很多焦点问题的根源。在这个经济快速发展的社会，诈骗腐败等负面现象带给民众强烈的不满和不安，公民们需要有保障有尊严的生活。不影响正常生活的前提下，以隐私换取透明公正，是很有吸引力的。我相信与其控制不如引导。在透明公正而有保障的社会体系下，公民们会很好地自我管理。Yes. If you pay attention to social hotspots, you will find that the above four points are the root of many issues. In such a fast-growing society, negative phenomena such as fraud and corruption bring strong dissatisfaction and uneasiness to the people, and citizens need to have a life of dignity. Under the premise of not affecting one’s normal life, it’s very attractive to exchange one’s privacy for transparency and fairness. I believe it’s better to lead than to control. Under a transparent, fair and secure social system, citizens will manage themselves well.
Z, 23, Shanghai 上海: 在我的印象中，社会信用体系两个最大的问题是它的透明度，和对人权的尊重。在某种程度上，社会信用体系的确是可以强化社会诚信、商务诚信等；体系的惩罚措施会鼓励人多注意自己行为的后果。可是最终人民并不知就里，也没有办法提出上诉。这在法治方面上是一个很大的问题：因此，人民事实上不可以按照体系的要求去做事，也无法反对政府当局的决定。从西方角度来看，社会信用体系是一个蹂躏人权的体系。但隐私权和自由权在中国的社会没有受到同样的重视。虽然如此，这体系侵入人权的程度是全球前所未见的，而给政府的滥权潜力太大了。From my impression, the two biggest problems of the SCS are its transparency and respect for human rights. To a certain extent, the SCS can indeed strengthen social integrity, business integrity, etc.; the system’s punitive measures encourage people to pay more attention to the consequences of their actions. But in the end, the people are unaware of how the system actually operates. This is a big problem in the rule of law: therefore, the people cannot actually do things according to the requirements of the system, nor can they oppose the decisions of the government authorities. From a Western perspective, the social credit system is a system that grossly violates human rights. But the right to privacy and liberty has not received the same attention in Chinese society. Nonetheless, the extent to which this system invades human rights is unprecedented in the world, and the potential for abuse of power by the government is too great.
What the SCS is not however, is an episode from Black Mirror, and nor is it remotely comparative. The implied “threat” is not the tyranny of the crowd, rather it is state power. In Black Mirror, personal scores are added and docked based on the crowd’s perception of what behaviour is, or is not, acceptable. In China, it is the CCP who determine what behaviour is right or wrong. All citizens within the clutches of the CCP are at its mercy.
Yet this isn’t a modern concept in China. After the 1949 Communist Revolution, citizens were assigned work units within which spying on neighbors became the norm to avoid any black marks on individuals’ dang’an 档案 or government file (which are still in existence today). Fast forward to the years following economic reform in the 1980s when millions upon millions migrated to the cities in search of better opportunities, causing the work unit system to collapse, and an increased sentiment of mistrust towards immigrant workers. The CCP are gamifying good behaviour, and whether you agree with the SCS or not, it is not only working here in the Mainland, but people are having fun with it.
So far, the SCS has been trialed and tested through a variety of means. Some have failed, and some have succeeded. In 2015, the People’s Bank of China selected eight tech companies (most of which are, of course, heavily influenced if not owned by the CCP) to run pilot projects. One of the most well-known was Sesame Credit, run by Ant Financial Services Group – who are an affiliate company of the e-commerce and tech giant Alibaba.
The scheme has thus far been optional, aggregating user’s personal data across five areas: trustworthiness, security, wealth, consumption and social networking – including, for example, shopping habits, contents of social media interactions, and personal information. As of yet, the scheme does not punish the “insincere”. The incentive is that “sincere” are rewarded with VIP airport check-in, visa fast-tracks, and even more prominent profiles on popular dating website Baihe.
Rogier Creemers, researcher at the University of Oxford, has said “the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme”. The Economist has reported that “such thinking is in keeping with the party’s long record of using bureaucratic tools to restrict freedom and invade privacy in the name of public order”.
Personally, my life in Shanghai is entirely dependent upon technology. Through WeChat alone, I pay my rent and bills, book flights and train tickets, order taxis, scan QR codes to pay when I shop, drink or eat out, to socialise and to work. I couldn’t live a day in Shanghai without WeChat, and neither could anyone else. It’s not mindless obsession, it is simply a necessity. If I pay with cash, people look at me like I’m a cavewoman. This is how the CCP will effectively be able to roll out the SCS with ease – everyone already accidentally signed themselves up.
In 1995, following the CCP issuing a State Council Development Strategy, high-tech startups popped up, dotted around the country. Chinese giants Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu were founded in 1998, 1999, and 2000, respectively. Yet this explosion in tech advancement has not been synonymous with concerns over user’s data privacy (has it anywhere, though)? In China, the CCP can and will demand network operators to hand over all data stored on domestic servers (such as WeChat), whenever they want. Afterall, “China treats personal information differently from the West” – in the West we have (imperfect, but existing) laws to limit what companies do with our data. In China, they do not, and civil-liberty advocates who try to protest this are simply imprisoned. What happens after they are imprisoned? Why knows? But China is reported to have the highest global rate of administering death penalty.
The CCP is exerting more control over tech companies; mobile and online payment regulators now have access to user’s transaction data, and it is rumored that Chinese internet regulators are considering taking a 1% stake in major tech companies. The co-founder of Yitu Technology, Zhu Long, said their Dragon Eye facial recognition technology “can very easily recognize you among at least 2 billion people in a matter of seconds” – aided, of course, by a database storing 1.8 billion photographs and used by 20 provincial public security platforms.
This sounds impressive, but the tech behind the SCS isn’t as foolproof as the CCP are making out. The World Privacy Forum has declared the scores based on hundreds of data points offer no standards of accuracy, transparency or completeness. Furthermore, the incentives for cyber-criminals to manipulate data are vast – “error rates and false readings become a big issue … (it is) garbage in, garbage out”. Ultimately the SCS “represents something more insidious than the panopticon that renowned social theorist Michel Foucault warned us about” … and dodgy tech is where it could all implode.
Contrary to what one might interpret from the above, China is not the only nation characteristic of SCS tendencies. Variations of the system are underway in Germany and the USA. Germany is said to be “sleepwalking in the same direction (as China)” Schufa, for example, a universal credit rating system used by around 75% of all Germans and over 5 million German enterprises, requires users to show their creditworthiness before renting a house or loaning money.
Staunch advocators of full transparency include Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Google “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”… Yikes. And in 2012, Facebook patented a credit score that collates an average credit score among your friends … and could theoretically reject loan applications where that average is below a certain minimum. The company has since revised its policy to forbid outside lenders from using Facebook’s data to collate user’s credit eligibility, and are yet to actively do anything with the patent.
Western media is intertwining the SCS with China exclusively, yet certain prominent Western figures and enterprise hold similar values … What do you make of Western media that scrutinize Chinese systems such as the SCS? How do you think media outlets can do a better job of giving their readers a more holistic overview of China so as to break away certain stereotypes?
G, 27, Beijing 北京: BBC, CNN等媒体是为西方少数大资本家服务的，期待它们能够转变态度并不现实。我希望其他有责任心的外国媒体能够理解真实的中国。少一点傲慢的臆测，多一点真实的观察。外国媒体要参与进去，和中国的官方媒体（比如新华社）合作，客观真实地向世界反映中国已经取得的成绩、正在发生的转变、未来的发展思路。The BBC, CNN and other (mainstream) media serve a small number of capitalists in the West. It is not realistic to expect them to change their attitudes. I hope that other responsible foreign media can understand the real China. (The West needs to adopt) less arrogant speculation, and a little more real observation. Foreign media should participate and cooperate with Chinese official media (such as Xinhua News) to objectively and truly reflect the achievements China has made, the changes that are taking place, and the future developments.
It’s not yet clear whether foreigners will be (in)directly implicated in the SCS. In the midst of writing this 66hands story, I was issued a warning by a policeman (who spoke impeccable English) for crossing the road (1m) outside of the white lines of the pedestrian crossing. He took my passport number, name and scrutinized my visa in front of dozens of curious onlookers who crowded around me. Given the absurdity of my “crime”, I thought I’d be able to flirt, chat and bribe my way out of it.
“Sorry, but can you tell me why I am being issued a warning when literally everyone else is crossing the road in the exact same way I’ve just done” No answer. “I love China” No answer. “Can I just give you this?” I pulled out 50RMB (£5). No answer. My details were taken regardless, and I walked on. (I later found out that this isn’t uncommon, and a lawyer friend confessed they’d been fined 100RMB for crossing the road while the little green man was flashing!) Yet if this were 2030, could that one incident have prevented me from traveling within mainland China, or have had more serious implications? I don’t know, and I’m not inclined to want to find out.
As much as the CCP’s ethical standards may fall short of our own in the West, it should not be forgotten that our own government systems are entrenched in indecision, democratic models that fail us as well as incompetent leadership. Yet unlike China, we as individuals have the right of choice, of speech – and to cross the road 1m outside of the pedestrian lines.
“The Chinese are long-suffering people; they bear the tyrannies of their oppressors, and the dominion of rapacious officialdom, with a patient resignation, but the hour is at hand when they will rise and avenge the wrongs of generations. In such an hour, no violence is regarded as an excess, and they will deal with their oppressors in their own way” – Through Jade Gate and Central Asia, by Mildred Cable & Francesca French, 1943
Personally, I don’t think that moment is ever going to come. The SCS is representative of China’s next chapter; it is not a rumour, it is very much a reality. The question is whether the Chinese people will internalize the SCS and continue to gamify their lives (as they have already done), riding the wave of the CCP’s economic explosion, or whether those with more of an outside perspective will offer creative resistance, causing small cracks throughout the SCS’s foundation, ultimately tearing it, the CCP, and China down. The world doesn’t want to see China torn down – if China tumbles we all tumble.
This 66hands story is dedicated to Dr G – who shows me China from the inside out. Thank you for your unwavering friendship.