China’s Social Credit System – Analysis of a Socio-technical Controversy

by Cassandre de Froidmont,  Ludovica Donati, Miriam Steffen and Aiman Zaidi

Introduction

“Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under the heavens while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step” (Atkinson, 2016, para. 7).

This is the broad guiding principle of a planned nationwide Social Credit System (SCS) to be implemented in China by the year 2020. The system will measure social, financial, personal and behavioural habits of citizens. The aim is to ‘judge the trustworthiness of the citizens’ (Botsman, 2017), ‘measure the social behaviour and political opinions of residents’ (Falkvinge, 2015) and ‘reward deferential behaviour and raise penalties for poor conduct’ (Vanderklippe, 2018).

The SCS is a controversial topic due to multiple reasons. Firstly, it is important to understand that the SCS will have an impact on citizens in terms of their access to services and amenities. This will be explained in detail via the current ongoing pilot projects. A citizens’ social credit can affect the life of their children as the schooling of a child may depend on the high score of their parent (Gaelon and Bergan, 2017). The SCS raises concerns about invasion of privacy and the lack of freedom as the system records and judges every citizens’ action. Constant monitoring and surveillance is also controversial as it would impact the behaviour of citizens (Gaelon and Bergan, 2017). However, daily monitoring is nothing new for China.

Historically, the initial experimentation for the SCS began in 2003 at provincial level. By 2007, the government had organized an Inter Ministerial Conference. 2014 was an important year when the policy document ‘Plan for Establishing a Social Credit System’ was published and gained Western interest. In 2015, the Central Bank of China granted license to Sesame Credit and 11 other pilot projects. By 2016, 32 pilot projects were established such as Unified Social Credit Numbers, Honest Shanghai app and Tencent credit (Meissner, 2017). It has to be understood that this form of surveillance and monitoring of social score (Dang’an) have existed under the Chinese government (Jacobs, 2015). The idea of reward and punishment through blacklisting have also existed. The only major change is that the SCS will be a nation wide regulated project.

With regards to this project, it is essential to highlight the limitations of gaining information about the SCS. Firstly, language barrier creates a major set back as all the government released official documents and the Chinese media articles are in mandarin. Therefore, gaining access and accurate translation have been difficult. It is also important to note the censorship of media and the general lack of transparency about the rules and regulations of the SCS.

It is imperative to mention that there are multiple stakeholders involved in this project at varying levels of hierarchy and with different views and perspectives. Hence, these stakeholders don’t necessarily have similar goals and targets, some are working towards the centralization and implementation of the system by 2020, while others are disagreeing with or opposing it. The aim of this essay is to provide an array of opinions that have made this project into a controversy.

Actors Involved and their Positions

Chinese Government and Communist Party

Although the amount of accessible publications from the Chinese Government are limited, there seems to be a single and clear opinion on the SCS. According to the Chinese Government, who is the initiator of the SCS, putting into place such a structure has a lot of potential. The SCS will help China live in a harmonious Socialist society as it will strengthen the sincerity consciousness and traditional virtues of the members of society as well as stimulate the development of society and the progress of civilization. In addition to this, the SCS will also be helpful to China’s economy. It will cultivate the Socialist market economy system which in turn will rectify and standardize the market economy order. The competitiveness of the country will also rise. Lastly the SCS is an opportunity to innovate, accelerate and improve social governance. (State Council, 2014)

Ministries

The establishment of the SCS is said to involve the large majority of China’s ministries (Ohlberg et al, 2017). After all, many authorities such as the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development or the Ministry of Finance are directly involved as data providers. As the SCS is gradually taking shape, President’s Xi Jinping’s plan to develop such a system is increasingly supported by several ministries, eight of which have recently signed a notice calling for a comprehensive national social credit system by 2020. (Meissner, 2017; Anonymous, 2018)

Municipalities

At the municipal level some experiments of social credit system based on the rating of every citizen have already occurred. Recently,  the General Office of the People’s Bank of China and the General Office of the National Development and Reform Commission of the PRC have in fact released a circular listing called “First Batch of Demonstration Cities for Social Credit System Construction”. Twelve cities have been selected, including Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Weifang, Yiwu, and Rongcheng.  (Wenzhou, 2018). Besides those cities, some other municipal governments have launched their own social credit system pilots with the aim of making their citizens more honest (Anminda, 2017). A successful example is the Shanghai credit system application “Honest Shanghai. Interestingly, however, an earlier experiment introduced in 2010 in the Jiangsu province had to be abandoned because of public backlash. (Lee, 2017)

Pilot Projects

The Chinese government is testing out the functionality of the Social Credit System through conducting pilot projects in different parts of China. Ohlberg et al. (2017) reported 11 projects implemented in 2016 and 32 new projects were set up by 2017. For reasons of simplicity, two of these projects are going to be discussed. Sesame credit is a subsidiary of Alibaba group whereby payments are made through AliPay (Gaelon and Bergan, 2017). Similarly, Tencent credit is a subsidiary of the Tencent group whereby payments are made through WeChat (Lococo, 2017 and Niewenhuis, 2018). 54% transactions in China were made via Alipay in 2017 (Technode, 2017). This emphasizes the importance of e-payments along with how financial data is readily available to these companies.

Currently, the pilot projects for the social credit system have their own algorithms measuring different aspects of the lives of the users. The Chinese government or the pilot projects are not transparent about the algorithm and would not necessarily disclose this information (Hvistendahl, 2017) in case someone would try and find loopholes for instance. Therefore, information gathered from Chinese media and western media sources has been summarised in the diagram below.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 19.39.14

Diagram 1: Sesame Credit System (Source: Botsman, 2017)

The diagram above shows the five aspects of the Sesame credit along with examples which includes: history, fulfilment capacity, personal characteristics, behaviour and preferences and interpersonal relationships. This shows that a citizens credit history, financial purchases, their behaviour towards friends and family and their opinions towards the government will be tracked and measured to create a score.

Legal aspect

The State Council of China aims to create trustworthy citizens while creating difficulties for the ‘discredited to take a single step’ (Minstreanu, 2018). The algorithm creates a score which can then be used by the law enforcement. The government is mainly an overarching branch implementing the system.

For instance, if a citizen has a high score, they can receive benefits for being a good citizen. Hence, it can be easier to get loans, buy land, buy a house, rent a car or a bike. (Botsman, 2017, Niewenhuis, 2018, Hvistendahl, 2017) Sesame credit, for example, allows a 50% waiver on rental deposits if a person has a high score (Vanderklippe, 2018).

Citizens with a low score, on the other hand, can be penalized. The penalty can vary depending on the score or the situation. For instance, it can be bad internet service to the low score creating difficulty in job application (Falkvinge, 2015). The sesame credit system monitors whether rent and bills have been paid on time. In case of a delay of payment, there can be negative consequences in renting in the future (Hvistendahl, 2017). Similarly, Falvinge (2015) mentions that there can be adverse consequences against citizens who post or share anti-government ideas on social media.

Private Companies

One of the main objective of the Social Credit System is to monitor and evaluate corporate behaviour (Sapio, 2017).  In this regard, companies with a bad credit rating, either because they did not pay their loans back in time or did not comply with emissions targets for example, will have to deal with some ‘punishments’ such as higher taxes. The contrary will of course apply to companies with a good score. It is very likely that also the International companies active in China will be fully integrated into this system mechanisms. (Meissner, 2017)

Although the amount of accessible public releases from private companies regarding this subject were limited, corporations seem to have different reactions to the first symptoms of the Social Credit System. For example Apple reacted quite positively to the establishment of the new Chinese national cybersecurity law of 2017 that  requires companies to store all information relating to Chinese citizens or to national security on Chinese servers (Yan, 2017). In fact, since February 2018 Apple users in China must accept a clause which states: “Apple and Guizhou-Cloud Big Data have the right to access your data stored on its servers. This includes permission sharing, exchange and disclosure of all user data according to the application of the law” (Naughton, 2018, para.3). There are however also some examples of companies being reticent to this new form of information technology.  For example, the chairman of Chinese carmaker Geely, publicly criticised Tencent pilot system in what he sees that as an invasion of users’ privacy (Tao, Barclay, 2018).

Citizens

There are of course some limitations in our presentation of Chinese citizens perspectives in regard to the Social Credit System and we cannot assume to have covered the views of the General Chinese population. However, it seems that although they will be one of the main target of  the imminent government Social Credit System, generally Chinese people seem to know little about it (Donati, 2018). This might also be explained by the fact that Chinese policymakers have not really encouraged a free and open debate on this topic (Hawkins, 2017). Nevertheless chinese citizens tend to have very different perspective on this issue. Some of them point out that the system is a necessary tool to build trust among citizens and that it will allow people with higher scores to live better lives (Hatton, 2015), while others are worried about their privacy rights and claim that the possible downsides outweigh the upsides (Maurtvedt and Jørum, 2018).

For what concerns the already implemented private pilot project such as Tencent and Sesame credit, people tend to focus more on their convenience and what they can gain from it rather than on the possible implications of their digital print. For example when asked what did he think about Sesame Credit a user of Alibaba replied “ I think is good since I have a pretty good credit score, so it’s more convenient for me to use Alipay for purchases”(Asian Boss, 2018 min 2.27). Other users pointed out that since the implementation of the pilot projects people have started to behave much better (Ma, 2018). However also in this case there are different views, in fact some citizens think that it is wrong for a company to score its customers (Asian Boss, 2018).  

In line with the development of the SCS a blacklist was developed in 2013 (Vanderklippe, 2018). People that are blacklisted face some serious social and economical consequences such as losing all their business partners or even not being allowed to buy train tickets (Vanderklippe, 2018). And according to the testimony of Liu Hu a journalist that has been caught up in the blacklist there seems to be a lack of transparency in regard to how does people end up in the list. Accordingly he claims: “there was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification.What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one” (Vanderklippe, 2018 para 6).

Civil Society

It is said that many NGOs operating in China are closely monitored by authorities with regards to their mandate and activities. With the emergence of a new law on the management of foreign NGOs in the beginning of 2017, pressure on such organizations and their activities has increased. (Yu, 2017) A group of United Nations human rights experts are “deeply concerned that this law will severely hinder the work of civil society organizations” (Anonymous, 2016, para. 10), particularly in the field of human, economic and social rights. Nonetheless, one well-known NGO, namely Human Rights Watch (HRW), issued a statement raising concerns about China’s Social Credit System, which is believed to considerably limit people’s rights and bring about more human rights abuses once fully implemented (Wang, 2017). HRW has also been vocal about the country’s big data and surveillance systems in general, stating that “what’s at stake across China isn’t just people’s privacy – it’s also many of the rights they hold” (Anonymous, 2017, para. 12). At this point, other statements on the SCS or the usage of big data from other members of civil society could not be found.

Scholars

Although the Social Credit System is a relatively new structure, several scholars have already written about it. The scholars mentioned here are all from the West as no articles from China or the rest of Asia could be found. The opinions on SCS are varied and mostly separated into two categories; the ones that see the potential in the SCS and the ones that are against it. According to some scholars, the unification of various elements as the SCS does is a great innovation in itself (Backer, 2017). The SCS is an opportunity to create greater convenience and security protection. With this new source of big data, novel insights could be yield into human behavior, potentially leading to innovative and useful technologies (Voas & Kshetri, 2017). In addition to this, Schuilenburg & Peeters (2017) points out that we nowadays live in a society where everyone exposes themselves virtually to everyone and anyone while watching others. Many people seem to express the feeling that they desire to watch and be watched. In brief, everyone has something to gain from it (Voas & Kshetri, 2017). On the other hand, it is also argued that SCS is not only a deliberate invasion of privacy but could also be a mere means for mass surveillance (Voas & Kshetri, 2017). Surveillance which then leads to the production of big data to know, control, and modify behavior as desired (Zuboff, 2015).

Media

The social credit system is addressed by both Chinese and Western media, albeit with conflicting opinions and arguments. According to a media analysis done by the Institute of Chinese Studies in Berlin, “so­cial credit (社会信用) has become an omnipresent political buzzword” in Chinese news media with the declared goal of “transforming society that is plagued by untrustworthy elements” (Ohlberg et al, 2017, p. 5). While most Chinese reporting appears to be either neutral or affirmative, stressing the general demand for more integrity and transparency (Ohlberg et al, 2017), Western media developed a different and predominantly negative perspective. Various news reporting from the US, UK, Germany and Switzerland often give reference to Orwell’s classic book 1984 and describe the SCS as an “Orwellian system” (Botsman, 2017; Gapper, 2018; Huang, 2018; Landwehr, 2018; Mitchell & Diamond, 2018). The Atlantic and Wired UK, two respected media sources with a slight to moderate liberal bias, considered the SCS to be a threat to freedom and privacy (Botsman, 2017; Mitchell & Diamond, 2018;). The German SWR2 cultural news reporting along with the Swiss mainstream online source Bluewin perceive the system as a totalitarian instrument of power (Dorloff, 2018; Landwehr, 2018). Quality newspapers such as The Epoch Times, a reputable media source with focus on China, and the Swiss Basler Zeitung are concerned about the SCS paving China’s way to becoming the ultimate surveillance state (Huang, 2018, Tebel, 2018). According to Daum (2017) from China Law Translate, such perceptions likely reflect overall Western fears about new information technology applications and finding the right balance between security and liberty. He stresses the importance to remember that “there are two stories worth exploring here; what is actually happening in China and what we fear is happening to ourselves” (Daume, 2017, para. 39)

Discussion

During our research on the SCS a few interesting and somewhat controversial observations were made.

As was previously mentioned, Western media have developed a predominantly negative perspective about the imminent implementation of the Social Credit System in China. While public opinion in the West generally tend to see it as a drastic Orwellian version of the future (Jahberg, 2018), only few interrogate themselves on the possibility that this system might not be only a “Chinese issue”. It must be noted however, that in some Western countries, particularly in the United States and Germany, national citizens already are associated to a credit score that strongly influences their financial lives. In the US for example information contained in people’s FICO credit report may not only influence their ability to receive a loan but also to get a job or rent an apartment in what prospective employers, insurers, property owners etc. can have access to their informations (USA.gov, 2018). Similarly, the German SCHUFA credit record rates peoples’ creditworthiness with analogous consequences for the citizens.

Interestingly,  the mission of the German credit bureau SCHUFA is very related to the one promoted by the Chinese governments, namely to increase trust between business partners and to prevent consumers to  become overwhelmed by debts overtime (SCHUFA a., 2018). Another similarity between the SCHUFA credit system and the imminent Chinese one, is the lack of transparency on how the score is calculated. In fact SCHUFA website states  “the SCHUFA scoring method is a business secret worthy of protection” (SCHUFA b., 2018 para. 3).


Another interesting observation made is that, as was previously mentioned, there is a risk that the Social Credit System will create a class system (Falkvinge, 2015; Hvistendahl, 2017) and especially an underclass (Tangen, 2017). This is contrary to what the Chinese Government claims that the SCS will bring: a “harmonious Socialist society” (State Council, 2014) and the essence of communist belief: everyone in a given society receives equal shares of the benefits derived from labor. Although the creation of a group of people, isolated from society and for whom it is near to impossible to reintegrate is a real threat, it may be argued that this is an involuntary and short-term effect of the SCS which will be solved over time. Once people truly understand how the SCS works and the consequences of low score, they will then try harder to keep up their scores, eventually creating an equal and harmonious society. In addition to this, Einar Tangen, a Chinese current affairs commentator, shared in his interview with CGTN America, that a reintegration system should indeed be put into place for those who truly show that they want to be “let back in” (Tangen, 2017).

Conclusion

While it is true that the different interests and perceptions of the actors involved create a highly complex web of arguments, three main positions could nevertheless be identified. The large majority of the actors involved (e.g. government, ministries, municipalities, Chinese media, academia, numerous citizens, private and pilot project companies) share the opinion that the establishment of the SCS would build an environment of trust. At the same time, however, many of the actors mentioned above (e.g. academia, citizens, private and tech companies) along with other involved parties (e.g. Western media and civil society) perceive the planned system as a serious threat to freedom and privacy. It is also the position of Western media, civil society and more critically thinking citizens and scholars that the SCS significantly violates human rights by exercising tight control over the Chinese population.

Whether the SCS can be implemented as a comprehensive and fully developed nationwide system by the year 2020 remains to be seen. Clearly, the involvement of so many different actors adds to the complexity and challenge of establishing such an all-encompassing system, irrespective of the government’s firm determination and commitment. All in all and in light of the discussions made, there are still many grey areas and unanswered questions. Particularly in relation to the algorithm and criteria that shall eventually be implemented and the impact the outlined SCS will have on Chinese society.

 

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