China's Social Credit System: An Overview
To the average Westerner, not much is known about Chinese internal policy. The autocratic, highly stratified arrangement of the state under the rule of a communist party evokes memories of horrors carried out by Soviet regimes in Europe. This was a world where obedience to state goals, many counterproductive to individual quality of life, was prioritized over the liberty of citizens. Born in Romania, I was raised with stories of the vicissitudes people experienced during communist rule as the traumas inflicted by Ceausescu’s regime were still fresh in people’s minds and hearts. The main component of these stories was the lack of interpersonal trust that was nourished by the mass surveillance campaigns conducted by the government. Informants, dressed normally and covertly integrated in various job positions, reported any instance of criticism towards the regime to the state police, always looking to nip any attempt at dissidence in the bud. My grandmother, entering a car with a work colleague after a particularly stressful day at work, made a comment about how they worked so many hours only to barely survive the month. The next day, she received a message that she was to appear before the party secretary assigned to her workplace. At best, this discussion could have resulted in a dismissal; at worst, in reeducation efforts that could have inflicted a strong trauma on my family. The day after, when she was supposed to meet the secretary, the 1989 revolution spread to Bucharest, and her workplace mutinied. State police chased her and her resisting colleagues, but she managed to flee and hide.
I invoke this story to draw a parallel between what appears to be a historically persisting pattern of this type of autocratic regimes. As I read up on the social credit system slowly enveloping Chinese society, I was reminded of my grandmother’s story. Whereas in the past, snooping on neighbors and friends was the job of those formally working under the state police, now dissidence can be identified digitally, through automatic monitoring of online activity, and more pervasively as citizens are encouraged to volunteer in disobedience reporting initiatives.
What is the Chinese social credit system? Memes circulating on social media paint the practice as a highly centralized tool of Orwellian proportions, recording every single detail of citizens’ lives and their ideological statements, and using this data to discredit and advance Chinese residents based on their behavior. Fortunately, the system does not appear to have reached this stage, as it appears to be separated from Chinese mass surveillance efforts that use alarmingly effective facial recognition technology. Moreover, different cities in China have implemented the credit system as a method of big data-based governance to differing degrees of government involvement and expenditure, employing varying punishments and benefits in line with local budgets. Unfortunately, the system is well on its way to becoming a tool that merges mass surveillance, big data, and repressive governmental practices into a dystopian reality for approximately 1.4 billion Chinese.
Fundamentally, the system is a database that ranks businesses, governmental institutions (excepting those under the CCP), and individual citizens based on their trustworthiness, allocating a specific score to these entities. The application of the system was initially to record which businesses in rural China, often lacking documentation, were trustworthy enough to conduct business with based on anecdotal experience in dealing with them. Later, the system was developed as an effective safety net for preventing the widespread distribution and export of counterfeit goods, be they medicine, food, or clothing. The Chinese economic reform of 1978 led to a sudden surge of businesses which could not be matched by the regulatory capabilities of the Chinese government, hence the need for the system. For government institutions, the score was used to track their overall performance and economic competency, such as their debts. Seemingly, the system also incorporates instances of reported corruption, inflicting penalties if an institution is known to frequently accept bribes. Additionally, compliance to orders from the CCP is also perceived as positive and is likely to lead to rewards.
The system was applied to individuals later, with a small blacklist of debtors from the Supreme People’s court. In 2015, a collaboration with multiple private companies, including digital entertainment giant Tencent, was initiated to develop the methodology of evaluation and providing rewards and penalties. Two years later, private companies were mostly exempted from the development of the system, with the duty being delegated to the government, with some exceptions. Several pilot trials were started across a number of cities in 2018, when restrictions on citizens’ liberties became apparent. Millions of flight and high-speed train tickets were blocked, targeting journalists and other businesses and individuals deemed untrustworthy. Slowly, more and more of these restrictions came to light, with a promise that the system would go national by 2020. This ambitious shift has been impeded by various technological and bureaucratic obstacles, mostly concerned with deciding upon a pervasive scoring system and issues with centralizing all the small trials under a comprehensive system. However, as of 2022, 62 pilot programs have been implemented.
The behaviors perceived as positive and negative vary throughout the programs. However, there appear to be some constants across these initiatives. Bad social conduct, like booking a table at a restaurant and not showing up, eating on fast public transit jaywalking, and being openly critical of the government are some examples of what can incur punitive measures. These measures include being rejected for loans, having your children blocked from entering good school and universities, and experiencing algorithmic disadvantages in online dating and job searching. Moreover, having a low score can make citizens eligible to public shaming. Villages may put up posters of low trust individuals in their centers. Cinemas may show the portrait and names of individuals, as is shown in an article I linked below, while large building can showcase citizens on large screens. A pilot program in Hebei has seen the development of an app that shows who has a low trust score within 500 meters. On the other hand, behaviors perceived as positive have to do with volunteering in community service, donating blood, and speaking positively about the government in online posts. According to Freedom House, a striking example of positive credit behavior is found in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is systematically repressing the Uyghur ethnicity, an Islamized Turkic and European genetic admixture. This repression includes limiting Uyghurs’ religious freedom, controlling Uyghur families’ structure by separating children from their parents, and coercing residents into labor camps. Here, the Han Chinese majority is awarded positive scores if they report Uyghurs engaging in public prayer and other religious services. This instance highlights how the credit system can be used to mobilize citizens into participating in the government’s repressive practices. Moreover, this obedient behaviour may not be ideological but rather rooted in survival. To have a high credit score means not paying for doctor’s checkups, renting bikes without deposit, taking loans without interest, and maximizing your chances in both romantic and professional endeavors. For the average citizen, which may have to provide for themselves and others with limited resources, there is not much choice but to comply.
It is important to note that much of what we know about the system comes from translated Chinese documents, invoking a risk of mistranslation and misinterpretation. However, on-the-ground research and elements of high-ranking officials’ speeches have revealed that the end goal of the system. It appears that this goal is to organize Chinese society under a largely digitized system that can punish, and reward based on highly controllable variables, always vulnerable to abuse. The Wall Street Journal unveiled a planning document on the system that expresses its dystopian intentions, from which I quote “[the social credit system will] allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
On a final note, similarly as in the case of the genocide happening in Xinjiang, there are many voices online, always from an entity economically backed by the CCP, who downplay the social risks and human rights violations implied by the actions of the Chinese government. I urge readers to avoid scripted and manipulated content about this topic that is used to misdirect Westerners into overlooking that these things are taking place. While those advantaged by the social credit system appear to be highly supportive of the initiative’s application to individuals, those under risk of being abused under its incoming expansion are likely to. As our personal agency is limited in this matter, for Westerners the social credit system should serve as a warning as to the dangerous convergence that can arise from combining mass surveillance, big data, and governance under a government which does not care for constitutionalism.