Have a vague idea that China’s social credit system is bad, but don’t really know much past that? Join the club!
The idea that China assigns citizens scores based on social behavior – ranging from volunteering to jaywalking – has sparked fears of an Orwellian dystopia. But how does the system actually work? And is it really as bad as it sounds?
To find out, I pulled primary source documents from China and poured over dozens of reports from think tanks and researchers. But while the details below clear up a lot, at the end we’re still left with two schools of thought:
Those who consider China’s program “the most ambitious experiment in digital social control ever undertaken” and those who claim “what is often misrepresented in the West as 1984 and Black Mirror rolled into one is only Beijing’s latest attempt at finding a one-size-fits-all solution to domestic governance.”
Keep reading to decide for yourself.
According to government documents, the system’s goal is to strengthen sincerity (or trustworthiness) in government affairs, commercial/business practices, social interactions, and law enforcement/judicial proceedings. In 2011, then-Premier Wen Jiabao stated:
The South China Morning Post concisely describes the system as “a set of databases and initiatives that monitor and assess the trustworthiness of individuals, companies, and government entities.” Citizens are assured that comprehensive monitoring will cut red-tape and improve government services and overall safety. However, Samantha Hoffman, non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has a different perspective, claiming the social credit system is a tech-enabled automation of Mao’s Mass Line (a term used to describe how the party managed society).
According to Hoffman:
Echoing the callback to Mao, the Journal of Public & International Affairs notes:
Due to a “regulatory jungle” – where provinces and cities enact different rules – China’s social credit system as a whole is a bit… messy. In a report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Kendra Schaefer – head of tech policy research at the Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China – describes China’s social credit system as:
Yet, while there’s currently no legal or unified definition of its mission, China’s social credit system is still charging ahead – with plans to address its fragmentation problem already underway.
The whole idea started back in 1999.
According to Lin Junyue, who led a research team under then-Prime Minister Zhu Rongji:
Lin and colleagues went on to publish their report, “Towards a National System of Credit Management,” in March 2000. As Lin explains, the term “social credit” followed in 2002, when an official suggested “a lexical symmetry with social security.” That same year, then-President Jiang Zemin promoted the concept during a government address:
Now, Jiang’s initial comments focused on social credit in the context of business – which is an important distinction that often gets missed. Not only did China’s social credit system start with a focus on business, to this day its priorities still skew towards the business world. Meaning that, while – yes – all those stories about individuals losing their ability to purchase plane tickets based on “untrustworthy” behavior are true (more on that in a second), businesses are a bigger target.
As the Mercator Institute for China Studies explains:
After Lin’s initial report, the social credit idea picked up speed in 2007 when the Chinese government published a notice titled, “Several Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on the Construction of a Social Credit System.” The authors stressed the “urgency of accelerating the construction of a social credit system” to “further improve the socialist market economic system and build a harmonious socialist society.” Once again, strong preference was paid to industry priorities; however, “social” references left the door open to targeting individuals (specifically those who exhibit financial “untrustworthiness”).
The next big step came in 2014, when the government published a second notice: “State Council Notice Concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014–2020).” As one researcher explains:
The 2014 document also outlined a lot more details and established a planning phase, which ended in 2020. However, while a number of key mechanisms are now in place (and model cities have been testing for years), as mentioned: There’s still a lot to organize. On November 14, 2022, the National Development and Reform Commission and People’s Bank of China, in conjunction with other top government agencies and departments, issued a draft law “for solicitation of public comments.” The draft version of the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Establishment of the Social Credit System” – also called the “Social Credit System Construction Law of the People’s Republic of China” (see English translation here) – has been criticized as creating more questions than answers.
According to MIT Technology Review:
As Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, puts it:
So where does that leave things today?
Since 2014, 43 Chinese cities have launched social credit pilot programs. Between 2018-2019, 28 model cities were selected as testing sites for national implementation. In an aptly titled summary (“Fragmentation is the Name of the Game”), the Mercator Institute for China Studies explains:
Add to the mix 47 institutions (with “partly conflicting intentions”) shaping the system from the top – including the State Council, National Development and Reform Commission, and the People’s Bank of China – and you can imagine just how different variations can get.
For instance, while all participating cities adhere to a general black list/red list framework (to identify negative and positive behaviors, respectively), each takes a different approach – with Wuhan and Shanghai Pudong District illustrating almost perfecting inverted emphasis on punishment versus incentive. (Black list distribution in Shanghai Pudong District is 75%, with a red list distribution of 25%; Wuhan’s red list distribution is 72%, with a black list total of 28%.)
Importantly, there’s no universal point system – yet (an angle that is widely misrepresented in Western reporting). However, point systems do exist (just at the city/province level). Businesses and individuals are rewarded and penalized based on various measures of “trustworthiness.” And, just like the point systems themselves, these measures differ from city to city.
In another example – as reported by one Chinese outlet – Suining County’s social credit pilot program assigned residents 1,000 basic points with extra points for good behavior and negative points for bad behavior. The chart below highlights behavior/point examples (e.g., finding money on the street and returning it: +15 points, running a red light: -50 points).
In 2013, when talk surrounding the social credit system was just picking up speed, Rongcheng set up a program that resulted in “a noticeable change in behavior and social interactions.” As reported by The Nation:
The same publication reports:
As explained by Chinese leadership:
To shape the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” China’s 2014 planning document lists a number of focal points regarding both business and personal life (spoiler alert: pretty much everything under the sun is covered). While there’s no centralized list of good versus bad behaviors, participating cities have used this document to guide development of their own rules.
Still, regardless of any point/behavior differences, all programs operate under the same premise:
So what happens when you do something wrong?
When it comes to the social credit system, China’s policy is clear:
Public shaming plays a large part. In 2019, The Nation reported that, in Teng Jia, the names of those who got negative points were broadcast by loudspeaker every Friday. Economic offenders were also called out on the public website, CreditChina.gov.cn (although, at the time of publication, the site is not working).
In 2016, China’s Central Committee and State Council General Offices suggested that the social credit system subject “untrustworthy” citizens to restrictions on:
As reported by South China Morning Post, in 2019 the National Development and Reform Commission confirmed the sale of 20.47 million plane tickets and 5.71 million train tickets were stopped due to China’s social credit system.
In one striking example, Liu Hu, a journalist in China who covers censorship and government corruption, was placed on a “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People’s Court” – meaning he couldn’t buy property, plane tickets, or take out a loan. According to Liu:
In another example, a citizen in Anqing was backlisted during COVID for “causing panic” by posting a video of an ambulance taking away a suspected COVID patient. The move was widely criticized, even within Chinese press.
Businesses also bear a large burden. The same document recommends establishing “blacklist systems and market withdrawal mechanisms in all sectors” and “ensuring that those breaking trust are constrained in their market interactions.” In 2021, the State Administration for Market Regulation published a draft law for managing “untrustworthy enterprises with serious violations.”
According to the European Chamber of Commerce in China:
Oh, and word to the wise: Be careful who you trust. The Chinese government also encourages “rewarded reporting systems for acts of breach of trust.” On the business side, companies are tasked with “continuously monitoring their partners’ trustworthiness across the entirety of their business network.”
If you find yourself on a Chinese blacklist, getting off might be tricky. As the South China Morning Post reports, individuals or businesses who have been blacklisted for minor offenses can appeal their status after repaying their debt and/or maintaining a good credit score for a certain period of time. Likewise, the Mercator Institute for China Studies notes that certain offenses are automatically cleared after a determined time period. However, in 2019, Lian Weiliang, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, warned:
Not surprisingly, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is quoted as saying:
If the government deems you or your business “trustworthy,” Chinese leadership recommends the social credit system:
For instance, in certain regions, volunteering or remaining debt-free could get your name on the red list. Sample rewards include public acknowledgement, prioritized healthcare, and deposit-free renting of public housing. (Unfortunately, a 2019 report suggests reward mechanisms are “less developed” than sanctions.)
In one striking example, people visiting a woman in Rongcheng – who suffered from a nerve disease – earned four points each. As one publication somewhat humorously notes, “Sometimes they bring trays of Chinese dumplings, which Ma’s husband freezes.”
According to the European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies:
China’s social credit system – part of Xi Jinping’s vision for “data-driven governance” – doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In 2020, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Youth League released a music video featuring Chinese pop stars promoting the program. The song, “Live Up to Your Word,” has been described by the Taiwan Times as “bordering on the absurd with the forced smiles of the actors giving the performance a somewhat Orwellian feeling.” (Watch the full video here )
While plenty of Western reports misrepresent China’s social credit system as a unified, national program worthy of wide-scale panic, other U.S. headlines are decidedly less… concerned. (See: “China’s Social Credit System Is Actually Quite Boring.”) Regardless, it’s hard to dispute the argument that China’s social credit system has “triggered global concerns around the ethics of big data.”
And yet, the most disturbing part about the whole program may just be that it distracts from even scarier initiatives under way. For instance, Human Rights Watch reports:
The biometric collection program is outlined in a government document titled, “The [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous] Region Working Guidelines on the Accurate Registration and Verification of Population.” For a full summary of the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur population in China – including torture and “vocational and educational training centers” (that amount to little more than forced labor and imprisonment) – all facilitated by high-tech surveillance, see the United Nation’s 2022 report: “Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China.”
According to the European Journal of International Studies:
China is also pioneering the development of “smart cities,” which – with their reliance on data-collection and technology-controlled access features – have raised their own concerns. (For a review, see: “China’s Smart Cities Development” prepared on behalf of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.)
With these initiatives in mind, it’s obvious that China’s social credit system is just one small piece of a much larger, technological puzzle that threatens to deprive Chinese citizens of far more than basic privacy. Summarized by the Mercator Institute for China Studies:
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