Investigating the Chinese Social Credit System

1. Introduction

Over the past few years, the Chinese Social Credit System (SCS) has attracted assiduous media attention as critics say that it is a new government initiative by the Chinese government to spy on its citizens and businesses by collecting information and promoting government-approved behaviours and policies. As with any government initiative to place greater scrutiny, there are very many objections being raised by the press and regular people around the world for the invasive nature of the SCS framework. The SCS, while not completely implemented as of yet, is being slowly crept into place by the government, with sights set on full implementation within the next few years. Given the Orwellian nature and the unprecedented scale of such a government project, observing and analysing the effects of the Credit System in China can provide a model of how a government can easily subvert and control its citizenry with big tech, surveillance, and top-down control.

2. Introduction to the Social Credit System

2.1. Objective and Scope of the Social Credit System

Let’s get acquainted with the vaunted Social Credit System (SCS). The SCS is planned to be a national government reputation system for Chinese citizens and businesses operating in China. The ultimate goal of the SCS is to systematically track businesses with a “unified social credit code”, and for citizens an identity number, collecting information on their everyday activities and movements, all of which are linked to permanent records. For Chinese residents, this means that the government will eventually track everything, from seemingly trivial things like religious beliefs and blood types to all aspects of life, with the ultimate goal of judging citizens' behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don't pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train and you could lose certain rights, such as the right to travel.

2.2. Justification and History of the Social Credit System

Now, this kind of surveillance seems extreme. Why focus on seemingly trivial offences like jaywalking, in the name of promoting government-approved harmony? That too, by spying on citizens’ everyday activities. The justification given by Chinese government officials in response to such questions is that the SCS would increase social harmony in Chinese society which is rather deficient in trust. This issue stems a bit from history. Constant suspicion of neighbours, or the fear of getting in trouble even if they are innocent, are all issues in Chinese society. Sociologist Zhang Lifan believes that it is due to the Cultural Revolution, where friends and family members were deliberately pitted against each other and millions of Chinese people were killed. This problem got worse in 2014 when the Chinese economy started to open up and integrate into the global market. The massive social shift this caused gave rise to massive intellectual property infringement, consumer safety scandals, and a general disregard for contractual terms and legal agreements. All of this led to a low-trust environment for not only citizens but also businesses and society at large.

The government’s solution to this was to create the SCS – a program designed with the intention of fostering and rewarding good behaviour, in an attempt to make society trust each other again. The SCS, in particular, was chosen, and not any other kind of government program, because of China’s long history of data collection. During Mao Zedong’s rule, dang'an (personal record) and the hukou (a household record) had been used to control migration and employment for decades. So, the precedent was there for the government to yet again use massive data collection (read: privacy infringement) to promote the government’s end goal. With that said, there is a certain irony in using a Maoist tactic of collecting dossiers on citizens, to solve a problem created during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

3. General Structure of the Social Credit System

3.1. Overview of the Social Credit System

Of course, for a country of over a billion people, it is going to be difficult to make a program that will oversee all of them. Therefore, to make sure the SCS works smoothly, there will be three different databases of information that will work in tandem to operate the system. They are:

  1. The Master Database (officially known as the National Credit Information Sharing Platform – NCISP)

  2. The Blacklisting System

  3. The Punishment and Reward Mechanism

3.2. The Master Database

Let’s start off by introducing the Master Database (NCISP). It is worth noting, that because of the extensive surveillance state that China already has, the government already has multiple databases chock-full of personal information about citizens, along with work information about businesses. However, there are two problems:

  1. Despite the vast reserve of information on Chinese citizens, it is generally spread across various different local databases (data islands) and hard to centralize.

  2. While the different databases collectively house extensive personal records on people, the SCS will require substantially more information.

From the Chinese government’s point of view, the first step of regulating the actions of citizens and businesses, is to get all of this data collected in one central place where everyone who needs access to the information can get it, and then support its expansion – hence the creation of the Master Database.

3.2. The Blacklisting System and the Rewards and Punishments System

All the hype about the SCS will have inevitably come from this aspect – the blacklist. The Blacklist System looks at the information collected about the citizens and companies in the Master Database and will assign a score to them, to make sure that bad actors will be blacklisted and potentially take away rights based on the severity of their actions.

While the current incarnation of the Blacklisting system is actually rather rudimentary (the scoring system has not been built, and as such, it is a simple blacklisting system), this is the system that has caused the most waves around the world. This is given the fact that the Blacklist System has already allowed the government to take away thousands of peoples’ ability to buy plane and rail tickets to travel domestically or abroad. There are also several examples of people and companies unaware of their blacklisted status until they were hit with the repercussions. Now, where there is a media presence, there is also sensationalism. It is important to note that as of now, the vast majority of blacklisting has been done to companies, and not to people – not that it makes the situation much better.

Despite being rudimentary, the blacklisting system is still complicated. There are hundreds of different blacklists controlled by different state agencies. Each agency has the power to blacklist companies and individuals that fall under their own jurisdiction. For example, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment can blacklist companies for environmental violations. However, blacklisting from one bureau can leave the company or person subject to blacklisting from all bureaus. In general, it takes 2–5 years to be removed from the blacklist, but early removal is possible if the blacklisted person has done enough remedies. Unfortunately, during that time, many citizens and businesses will suffer a massive loss of privileges in society.

There are also hopes that social credit data can be used as a risk prediction tool, rather than just a mechanism for reactive punishment. In other words, instead of just issuing punishments for bad credit after violations happen, the government wants to use computational tools to determine targets for inspections or take proactive action before problems occur. However, this is only a concept that might hold relevance in the future.

Now, not all of the Blacklisting System is bad. Similar to Santa’s nice list, there is also a list of people who have been deemed by the government as upstanding citizens. If the government deems citizens as good, they will be red listed. While the official information about red listing is vague, it seems that red listing will afford a citizen greater, rights and privileges in daily life.

The final aspect of the SCS is the Rewards and Punishments Mechanism. This is simpler, as it is the action arm of the whole system. When the central government will deign to blacklist or red list a person, the local police force in a city will make sure that the selected punishment happens.

4. Implementation of the System as of Now

4.1. Overview of Implementation

Given that there has been a ton of media sensationalism around the SCS, one fact must be made clear: the whole system has not yet been fully implemented. Right now, the Chinese government has been going through intensive trials for SCS in almost all major cities. However, the SCS has been almost completely localized – as in the local governments are conducting their own SCS trials. While 2020 was chosen as the year to make the SCS go fully national in the hands of the central government, the coronavirus has tentatively thwarted those plans.

Generally, the SCS in its current implementation has two forms:

  1. The Private SCS System

  2. Local Government-Run (National) SCS Trials

The combination of both private companies, and local governments implementing the SCS, is the government’s way of testing out the SCS in an efficient manner. Both systems have the same goal of regulating the behaviour of citizens and companies, and ultimately feeding all of the information to the central government. However, the way in which either version of the SCS is run is distinct and worthy of a discussion.

4.2. The Private Social Credit System

Diving a bit deeper into the private SCS, nearly all of the companies that operate SCS programs have intricate ties to the Chinese government. Some of the major companies operating the SCS system include Alibaba, Ant Financial’s Zhima Credit and Tencent – all internationally known Chinese giants. The companies score participants on a range of criteria, including not only their credit history but also their behaviour. The fact of the matter is, nearly 80 per cent of Chinese citizens are already taking part in the SCS operated by any of these private companies. This is interesting, given that participation in the private SCS is voluntary (for now). Why would someone willingly let a company spy on their activities, with the eventual goal of reporting back to the government? Well, Samantha Hoffman (a fellow at the ASPI) notes that "there are incentives for participating, and disincentives for not participating”. Essentially, the system is in name, voluntary, but the disadvantages that people would receive from not participating (remember that these are massive companies with ties to the government), participation becomes tacitly mandatory. Some of the bigger benefits of participation are listed below.

  • Easier access to credit loans (quite important in China)

  • Discounts for car and bike-sharing services

  • Fast-tracked visa application

  • Free health check-ups and preferential treatment at hospitals

Given that, it makes more sense why such a system has not faced that much backlash – regardless of ethical concerns. To reiterate, the data collected by private companies is expected to be collected up by the government in the future, and some of the data is already used in government trials.

4.3. The Government-Run SCS

The local government SCS experiments are focused more on the construction of transparent rule-based systems, in contrast with the more advanced rating systems used in the commercial pilots. With that said, the general mechanic remains the same in that citizens receive a starting amount of points and they then gain points for doing government-approved deeds and lose points for bad actions. How cities decide to create the scoring system is completely up to the local government in power.

Nearly all big cities in China, and most mid-tier cities, have implemented a trial of the SCS. It is in the government-run SCS trials, that you begin to see just how invasive the whole system is. Governments track almost all of a citizen's daily activities. You can lose points for trivial activities like forgetting to put your dog on a leash (in Jinan), jaywalking (in Shenzhen), and even cheating in video games (in Suzhou). Given that the eventual consequences of losing too many points are forgoing civil rights, this seems awfully restrictive and petty. The government may allege these systems mean to penalize “untrustworthy” citizens and “change people’s behaviour by ensuring they are closely associated with it [the SCS]”, but that makes this system seem rather Orwellian. The government justifies attempting to influence citizens’ behaviour to toe the party line under risk of punishment for inconsequential offences.

Some experiments also allowed citizens to appeal the scores they were attributed, but that is very clearly the exception, not the rule. Even in cities where appealing is allowed, it is worth noting that citizens need to go through the court system to do that. Given that the Chinese justice system has a 99.9% conviction rate, acquittal seems like a long shot.

4.4. Technology Used in the Implementation

The SCS will depend heavily on China’s pre-existing mass surveillance system and AI facial recognition software. As of 2019, there are approximately 200 million surveillance cameras in China, as a part of the Skynet tracking system. This figure is predicted to rise by 213 per cent by the end of 2020 to 626 million. The general plan is to use this surveillance system to track the everyday actions of all Chinese citizens, to survey whether they are committing an offence worthy of an eventual blacklist. According to researchers these cameras are capable of capturing, “thousands of faces at a stadium in perfect detail [to be more accurate, 95% accuracy] and generate their facial data for the cloud while locating a particular target in an instant.”

The government is known to use realistic-looking drone birds to surveil citizens.

This will also be matched by the Chinese government’s internet tracking abilities, to observe the actions of its citizens on the internet. The SCS will likely provide more tangible punishments to searching and sharing anti-government rhetoric. How does the Chinese government do this? The government has close ties to Baidu (the Chinese equivalent of Google) and social media services (e.g. Weibo), which allows them to collect data on any and all citizens using the service (and by proxy, censor). And for anything shared through mobile devices, as of 2018, the Chinese government is able to log the date, time, and serial numbers—all traceable to individual users—of Wi-Fi-enabled phones that passed within its reach. The AI software is so advanced at this point, that it can immediately identify videos of Tiananmen Square and Uyghur protests, and block them. VPNs are no longer safe either, as the government is cracking down on those. The government’s ability to scour the internet so effectively, also means that businesses violating the SCS can be flagged as well. Any data that indicates non-compliance with legally prescribed economic obligations and contractual commitments are aggregated on a government-wide level to determine the trustworthiness of companies.

Therefore it is evident that the government can track any online and in-person activity that a person does. What about specific transactions that citizens have with companies? How will the government be able to check if citizens are buying things that they consider suspicious? This is where the private SCS comes into play. These private companies collect massive loads of information including:

  • purchase transactions,

  • individual’s wealth and property assets,

  • user profile (like certificates for occupation and education level that users choose to share) and,

  • user’s money transfers with other Private SCS users.

Given that 80% of China's one billion people are a part of the private SCS, this is an extremely effective way for the government to gather data.

Now, on the off chance that the technology fails to pick up on an offence worthy of losing points under the SCS, the government has a back up for that as well. The government has encouraged people to report anyone they see that violates any edicts placed by the SCS. For a system built to build trust, this seems rather counterproductive. The Chinese government has essentially created a massive web of surveillance (technologically and physically) to cover almost all aspects of citizens’ lives.

5. Negative Implications of the SCS on Citizens

5.1. The SCS is not Egalitarian

There are a lot of ways for anyone to lose points, but not as many ways for anyone to gain them. This stems from the fact that most of the ways to increase points are aspects over which people have very little control, or they are awards which many people aren’t in a position to receive, particularly those in low-income brackets. In addition, a lot of the wording in what is defined as a good deed is very vague, and up for interpretation. A lot of power on what constitutes a good deed depends on the government.

Now, this is a massive problem. Given just how extensive China’s surveillance network is, and how often humans make mistakes, it would be pretty simple for the government to catch a person doing a punishable offence – given how easy it is to lose points. You could certainly imagine a world where it is extremely easy for people to lose points, and very difficult to gain them – meaning most regular people would be in a point deficit, ergo, on the blacklist. At that point, citizens would be effectively at the mercy of the government.

5.2. Scaling Back Rights – Political Tyranny Over the People

Think of it like this. The government can use the SCS to essentially bully citizens into following the party line, under threat of being blacklisted. All the government has to do is justify taking away your rights, which is really easy, when you consider that the Chinese government has their eyes everywhere and that the offences worth losing points are very easy to rack up.

Let’s look at a very practical example. Liu Hu is a Chinese journalist who wrote about the rampant censorship and corruption present in the Chinese government. For speaking out against the government, Liu was placed on the blacklist. Without prior notice, Liu was barred from buying a train or aeroplane ticket, taking out a loan, or buying property. Liu was one of 5.96 million people who were denied train tickets, and 26.82 million people banned from buying plane tickets. And this is all under just a trial SCS. Essentially, this means that many people are restricted to the country, without the ability to move abroad. One can only wonder how many of these people were unjustly placed under the blacklist, by the SCS.

The fact of the matter is, a low social credit score will exclude you from well-paid jobs, make it impossible for you to get a house, obtain a car loan, or even book a hotel room. The government will slow down your internet connection, ban your children from attending private schools and even post your profile on a public blacklist for all to see.

Blacklist for people who are restricted from taking air and rail transport (Credit China).

5.3. Public Shaming and the Creation of an Incohesive Society

It is rather ironic that the intended goal of the SCS is to create a trustworthy and harmonious society. It is ironic because the government actively publicly shames those on blacklists. Certain personal information of the blacklisted people is deliberately made accessible to society and is displayed online as well as at various public venues such as movie theatres and buses.

Example of public shaming in Quanzhou, Fujian.

The government can easily use this as a tactic to turn public opinions against people that the government does not like. This is especially given that anything from racking up simple offences, to simple dissent, can eventually leave a person blacklisted. The government can then pick and choose anyone who they want to be shamed. A society that can be twisted by the government to hate anyone showing dissent is a perfect way to lessen trust between society members.

This is augmented by the fact that the government actively encourages people to “tattle” on their fellow neighbours if they see them doing something supposedly against the SCS. It is hard to see how a system like this can in any way, increase trust within a community.

People are devising apps to track people on blacklists – possible because of public shaming.

5.4. Public Shaming and the Creation of an Incohesive Society

The treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has been an open secret. China has a record of discrimination, whether that be against specific ethnicities or political classes. For example, the SCS also provides monetary rewards (from red listing), if people report seeing Uyghur Muslims praying in public. Or for another repressed group, people in Hefei, Anhui Province, were given 30 points for forcing a number of Falun Gong practitioners to give up their faith. Evidently, the government can use the SCS as legitimacy to reward the repression of minorities. This eventually creates government-supported classes of people – people who are afforded privileges through red listing, and those who are not.

5.5. Privacy and Corruption Issues - the Government has Everyone's Data

When all citizens have their public and private information stored on one Master Database, all you need is one corrupt politician to use that information to either manipulate or inappropriately use that data. This might seem unlikely but remember that the Chinese government has a significant corruption problem.

This also extends to a privacy issue. The government, without the consent of its citizens (because the government-run SCS is mandatory) effectively spies on its citizens’ daily lives. Letting government officials know one’s everyday activities seem against any code of privacy. In addition, often when people become blacklisted or red listed, the government seems to release all of the individual’s personal social credit information (from their ID numbers, or personal information). Specifically, for blacklisting, this leads to public shaming. None of this seems like the pinnacle of privacy.

5.5. Reduction of Legal Rights

Now, let’s assume a perfect world scenario, where the government implements the SCS fairly. The question then is, what is the problem with using technology to make everyone behave well? The issue at that point is not the overly invasive nature of the technology. The issue is that the entire system is extralegal. What that means is that because the SCS now incriminates people outside of the legal system, as there is no presumption of innocence and no due process. In a small handful of trial runs the government has allowed appeals, but it seems unlikely that the ability to appeal will be available beyond the trial run for the SCS. This means that Chinese citizens more or less lose the vast majority of their legal rights.

6. Possible Theoretical Benefits of the SCS to Citizens

6.1. Building Trust?

Despite evidence and common sense pointing otherwise, the Chinese government has assured the public that the SCS will indeed build a more harmonious society. If one were to stretch their imagination then I suppose this scenario would be possible. However, this depends on absolute good faith implementation of the SCS, and the complete absence of any ulterior motives or corruption while running the system. Truthfully, all evidence points against this being the case. However, the Chinese government does give a rationale for why they believe the SCS will improve trust.

It is an unavoidable fact that minor violations of the law in China, like traffic violations and certain ethical and corruption violations when it comes to business, usually go unpunished. The SCS can be implemented as an attempt to fix that, as people will now be forced to strictly adhere to government edicts. In a way, this could make people trust both their fellow man and businesses more, as they know that everyone will be subject to strict punishment if they do not follow the rules. You would wonder though, why the Chinese government did not simply choose to enforce their laws better, instead of introducing a completely new system like the SCS.

6.2. Building Financial Credit

It is interesting to note, that by 2011, only 1 in 3 Chinese people had a bank account, with most citizens preferring cash. The nation’s rapid rise from collectivized penury to the world’s No. 2 economy in around 2014 meant it never had the chance to develop Western-style credit histories. Essentially, most of the country lived outside China’s financial system and had no real credit rating as a result. That meant people could default on loans or sell shoddy or counterfeit goods with few repercussions. The SCS is intended to be used as an alternative to financial credit by banks. Specifically, credit rating agencies will use the data collected by the SCS to issue scores to both citizens and businesses, which will especially help with lending purposes.

7. The Effect of the SCS on Businesses

7.1. Overview

With all of the focus placed on the effects of the SCS on people, it is often easy to forget that the government also uses the SCS to regulate businesses. It is in fact, one of the key uses of the SCS, to regulate businesses. The actual implications of the SCS are somewhat complex, as there are both negatives and positives in regard to business operations.

7.2. The Negatives

Due to the Chinese SCS, companies will now be always operating under the threat of blacklist. Essentially, companies will always be restricted by the government in their actions. This is most certainly going to reduce at least some efficiency and production capability for businesses, as government regulations tend to do. Businesses will also not have the freedom to pursue anything independently anymore, as their products will be subject to approval by the SCS. This could be construed as positive because, under the status quo, businesses can not respect intellectual property – something the SCS could fix. The downsides would be that China would lose a significant market for off-brand products (I mean, who has not bought fake Nikes, or such). As well, the SCS would be a general crackdown on free enterprise, as any idea would need government approval now. The fact that about 33 million businesses in China have been given a score, and very many companies have already been blacklisted, is proof of this.

In addition, according to MOFCOM (a government agency in China), all foreign businesses will have to comply with the SCS once the system is in full effect. This will likely reduce some enthusiasm on the part of foreign investors and businesses with chains in China.

Another negative is that the SCS score of a business would also be directly tied to its employees (specifically high-ranking ones). Given that we have established that it would not be difficult to land yourself in a blacklist, companies would have to be extra careful in who they hire. It would be rather easy for a company to be negatively affected, just because the government places one of its employees under the blacklist.

7.3. The Positives

There are a fair few positive effects with the SCS on the economy, but again, the caveat is that these positives are all dependent on a fair implementation of the SCS. The SCS is very much primed to root out corruption with business in China. The SCS functions as an information-sharing system among government agencies, which means that non-compliance in one area, such as bribery and corruption, will be more quickly reported, publicized, and shared with other government agencies, and, in many cases, with the public. Companies will very likely face more immediate and potentially wide-ranging sanctions for violations. This could definitely increase public trust in businesses, which has been consistently low in China for decades.

The government, when it comes to businesses, also takes something called a “joint sanction” approach. This means that a company’s SCS score can be adversely affected by negative SCS scores of its business partners so that companies will have to regularly monitor the scores of its business partners in China and consider ways to mitigate the risk that a partner’s conduct. However, this can be negative, because it makes it easier for the government to control businesses in favour of its desires. This all takes place under the threat of higher inspection rates, targeted audits, and difficulties obtaining unrelated administrative approvals. Viewing this policy in good faith though, you could make a case that this roots out corruption even more, as companies now have the incentive to dissociate from bad actors.

Of course, if companies follow the SCS well, there is also the benefit of being red listed. Upon being red listed, the company can receive rewards including lower taxes, fast-tracked bureaucratic procedures, preferential consideration during government procurement bidding, and other perks.

Preliminary data, depending on how one views it, can be used to support a hypothesis that the SCS is good for the Chinese economy. Zhengjie Fan of the China Institute of International Studies has claimed that there is proof for this hypothesis. He cites the Doing Business 2019 study by World Bank Group which ranks "190 countries on the ease of doing business within their borders", wherein China rose from 78th place in the previous year to 46th place. Now, Fan is not an objective actor, and it is yet unclear whether the SCS had anything to do with this rise, or if it was following the general trend of China’s growing economy. But what it does show is that a trial run SCS has not significantly harmed the economy (as of yet).

8. Public Reception to the SCS

Despite many of the criticisms of the SCS, it seems that the vast majority of Chinese citizens actually approve of the SCS. According to a survey conducted by the Free University of Berlin, 80 per cent of respondents approve of social credit systems, 19 per cent perceive the social credit systems in value-neutral terms while only 1 per cent disapproved of the system. While the high degree of approval can be put down to the fact that this survey was done in an authoritarian setting (dissent is very much frowned on in China), half of the respondents did indicate strong approval, instead of regular approval, makes it seem like the overall public support may, in fact, be strong. An important caveat to this survey is that researchers have questioned the legitimacy and sample size used for the survey.

However, taking the survey in its best light does raise an interesting question. Why are many Chinese citizens fine with the SCS? Well, further analysis of the results shows that socially advantaged citizens (those who are wealthy and better educated) show the strongest approval of social credit systems, along with older people. It seems odd, that the wealthy and the educated would be fine with the SCS, a system that could potentially influence their economic, political, and social freedom and opportunities. The reasoning actually lies in the fact that higher educated and wealthier citizens, particularly in urban areas, have access to a wider range of benefits offered via social credit systems. Social credit systems are viewed through a particularly positive lens by respondents with access to these benefits that contribute to a convenient and attractive lifestyle. These respondent groups are therefore more likely to believe that the SCS is a legitimate system to build a more harmonious society, rather than a system in favour of mass surveillance.

9. Conclusion

The SCS, as is implemented right now, is a one of a kind system in today’s world. There obviously needs an emphasis placed on observing the results of such a system. Seldom has the world ever seen such an extensive, Orwellian-esque system. It is understandable that such a government program likely will not be implemented in western democracies, given the checks and balances that are in place. Likewise, the value systems in the West (favouring individuality) and China (favouring order and conformity) are very different. Still, the SCS gives an interesting view of how a technocratic, top-down control system can affect the populous.

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