AAA Citizen: The Chinese Social Credit System

There you are, checking your social credit score again. You want to get promoted in your job now and married in autumn, so going AAA is crucial, as employers are sure to require a certificate and parents are taking up the habit too. You used to have to go to the local Social Credit Management Administration, but as roll-out is progressing to its 2020 horizon, you can now just check through an app. Like everybody you started with a 1000 points, but the accidental jaywalk and a few customers complaining about service quality when you were new on the job put a dent in that. But now you’ve been teetotal for a while, always kept out of brawls, and dissident writing habits were never your thing. You even took up stopping your car at pedestrian crossings to pick up some extra credit-candy, and your recent commitment to party work is exemplary. Bad luck that you live in Rongcheng, where all of this got into pilot project mode a bit earlier than in the rest of China, but such has been life since 2014. Some places got going earlier still, and in Shanghai, after all, they’re even checking if you’re getting the garbage separation right … You’re doing well now, with an A+. You learnt how to deal with this from your parents’ experience with the students’ and workers’ brigades and the dang’an. You’re not one of those over-achievers from the tiger-parents-upper-class-complexes and you’ll never make it onto one of those posters with mugshots of the best rated citizens like they put up in Fulushan. But you were raised a solid Stakhanovite. Not so that poor chap that went to class with you. That fellow is down; like: really down. Some stupid internet-comments and an unpaid credit. Registering his children to school is kinda tough now for him and buying plane or high-speed train tickets has become literally impossible. With that D rating, even his access to welfare is reduced. If they meant to make an example out of him, they certainly hit target …[i]

China has been a cybernetic regime for a long time, and it is investing massively in going smart and ‘complete’ by 2020. By that date, their social credit system is supposed to include all people and companies within China and combine all data-resources, from state registers to commercial customer data delivered by private companies into one data bank [ii]. As of now, 8 private companies have been entrusted with developing pilot platforms. A note in a BBC report gives an idea of the moral logic underpinning those companies’ vision of the capital/control nexus:

Controversially, the company [Sesame] does not hide that it judges the types of products shoppers buy online.

“Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director told Caixin, a Chinese magazine, in February. [iii]

Elizabeth C. Economy summed it all up like this:

By 2020, Beijing plans to have rolled out a national system of “social credit”, integrating information from online payment and social media apps into a database that would allow it to punish or reward citizens based on their supposed trustworthiness. Those whose behavior falls short–defaulting on a loan, participating in a protest, even wasting too much time playing video games–will face a range of consequences. The government might slow their Internet connections or restrict their access to everything from restaurants to travel to jobs, while giving preferred access to those who abide by the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] rules. [iv]

Also referred to as the “social reliability rating”, the Chinese Social Credit System presents itself first and foremost as akin to the credit ranking systems that exist elsewhere, such as FICO in the United States or the SchuFA system in Germany, which are not only relevant to obtaining credit, but also essential when applying for a flat and similar processes. In China, so the argument goes, there is both a lack of trust due to histories of corruption and extortion, as well as a lack of (in Western eyes) more conventional credit histories, such as those associated with credit cards. Though these ‘conventional’ systems do not include point rankings based on ‘moral’ categories, it is easy to see how the Chinese system can portray itself as a cybernetically enhanced version of these latter. “Credit expert Hu Naihong, who is advising the government on this project”, put it like this:

“You can’t say people damaged their credit only after they default on their debts. There may have been many clues in their daily lives that show they don’t like to follow rules.”[v]

Another defining difference to Western systems is that these only record negative behavior, whereas the Chinese Social Credit System also features so-called “red lists” that register “good behavior”, ranging from that mentioned above to simply “good” administrative behavior, “such as filling taxes correctly and on time.”[vi] Some public records, such as the Fulushan-posters, offer 4 categories (or “virtues”) in which to gain credit: good behavior, supporting one’s parents, helping other people and being engaged against crime. The private pilot companies driving the development of tools necessary for the general implementation of the policy use different categories more closely related to their business spheres:

Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behavior and preference, is where it gets interesting. [..] The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up. [vii]

Apart from social pressure to conform to these standards, the perks for a high score are quite concrete, from shopping and travel facilitation, to better performances on dating sites such as Baihe or specially designed mobile phone games that (e.g.) let you guess your friends’ social credit score. As Rachel Botsman put it in Wired, what this leads to is “gamified obedience” [viii], in which people conform to social credit standards while often ignoring that the still partly voluntary system is designed to become compulsory in the near future.

Using algorithms to compute morals and induce people to social conformism and other well-channeled modes of behavior, however, is not exclusive to China, as can be gleaned from wide-spread forms of big data based consumer ‘nudging’ throughout the West, as well as from more localized permutations of cybernetic regimes such as the algorithms used to set bail and execute parole decisions based on recidivism probability scores in the United States. (continued in the post on “Nudged Citizens”)

[The Wall Street Journal as a good graph condensing how the Social Credit System works here.]

[i]This paragraph is largely based on the following highly recommended piece: Axel Dorloff. “China auf dem Weg in die IT-Diktatur.” http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/sozialkredit-system-china-auf-dem-weg-in-die-it-diktatur.724.de.html?dram:article_id=421115

[ii] The main interest here will be on the personal credit score system. See this article by Kelsey Munroe in The Guardian for how China uses the Social Credit System to pressure foreign companies to obey directives originally promulgated inside China. Effective for any company with a Chinese business licenses since January 1. 2018, the Credit System will includes NGOs, non-profits and trade unions and social organizations since June 30. 2018.

[iii]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34592186

[iv]Elizabeth C. Economy. „China’s New Revolution. The Reign of Xi Jinping.“ in Foreign Affairs Vol.97 n.3. (May/June 2018). P.64.

[v]https://www.marketplace.org/2018/02/13/world/social-credit-score-china-blacklisted

[vi]Idem.

[vii]Rachel Botsman. “Big Data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens.” https://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion

[viii]Idem.

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