China’s social credit system: Myths and realities

In some parts of China, Santa-type lists of “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice” are being used by the government to control behavior in their widely publicized “Social Credit System.” 

If you’ve been naughty – which could mean anything from committing a crime all the way down to jaywalking – you may be banned from

  • Getting your kids into private schools
  • Getting a good job
  • Staying at luxury hotels

According to Business Insider, nine million people with low scores have been blocked from buying airline tickets for domestic flights.

When you cross certain intersections in Beijing, the combination of advanced facial recognition technology and CCTV cameras everywhere enable a computerized shaming system to project your face and ID number on a giant billboard.  And when friends call you on the phone, the first thing they hear will be a siren and a recorded message such as “Warning, this person is on the blacklist.  Be careful and urge them to repay their debts.”  Even bad dog owners can be punished.  If BaoBei’s loud barking keeps your neighbors awake at night, she could be taken away. 

Monitors display a video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii, in Beijing, May 10, 2018. Beijing is putting billions of dollars behind facial recognition and other technologies to track and control its citizens. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

But if you’ve been nice – which could mean anything from serving in an important Party position to just getting to work on time every day — you may be able to:

  • Get more matches on dating websites
  • Get a discount on your heating bill
  • Rent an apartment without a deposit
  • Get a better interest rate at banks
  • Buy tickets for China’s high speed trains
  • Skip hospital waiting rooms
  • And much more

Add it all up, and you have what Vice President Mike Pence described as an “Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.” 

Oh wait.  That’s the myth.

In fairness, the myth can be traced to a 2014 official government document which described a 2020 deadline for assigning a single “social credit” score to every one of China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and using these scores to shape behavior.  The goal of this system was to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

This goal has proven elusive.  Last July, an article in Wired magazine, described the current reality:  “The [social credit] system as it exists today is [just]… a patchwork of regional pilots and experimental projects, with few indications about what could be implemented at a national scale.”  As Chinese scholar Xin Dai summed up the current state of the art, “You have this really massive but also chaotic scene of different people trying to put together different types of programs.”

Every example mentioned above has been implemented somewhere in China, and many related systems are still being built and tested.  But as Time magazine summed it up:  “It’s difficult to generalize about all of them, since they can vary widely.”

So it is clear that the idea that a comprehensive Orwellian nationwide system being completed soon is a myth  The reality is that there is no chance that it will be completed by this year’s original deadline.  In fact, it may never be completed.

Nevertheless, although the components of the system are neither complete nor nationwide, some examples still sound quite frightening to my Western mind. 

From my perspective, one of the most interesting things about the planned social credit system is the reaction of China’s citizens.  If just one of the examples mentioned above were planned for the US, it would be blocked by ACLU privacy lawsuits for decades, if not forever.  But many Chinese citizens don’t seem to care.  In fact, they embrace it.

A recent “survey of Chinese citizens shows 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit systems.”  As noted in a Washington Post article, “the reality [is] that there are different cultural expectations of the government in China than in other countries. China’s governance tradition of promoting good moral behavior goes back thousands of years… [But] fraud is now so widespread that anyone who has lived in China in recent years has most likely experienced it in some form.” 

According to an excellent social credit article in Time, “In China, cash has long been king. As recently as 2011, only 1 in 3 Chinese people had a bank account. The nation’s rapid rise from collectivized penury to the world’s No. 2 economy meant it never had the chance to develop Western-style credit histories. That meant people could default on loans, or sell shoddy or counterfeit goods, with few repercussions. Society was dogged by a question: Whom can you trust?”

China’s recent history compounds the problem.  During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), nobody could trust anybody.  Mao Zedong’s campaign encouraged students to form “Red Guards” to root out the “four olds” – old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.  They did so with a vengeance.  Millions were accused of being bourgeois reactionary rightists, had their property seized, and were harassed, tortured, and in some cases even executed.  Student groups attacked their teachers, their parents, and each other.  

Even Party officials were not safe.  Both Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader from 1978 to 1992) and Xi Zhongxun (vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, and father of China’s current leader Xi Jinping) were exiled to work in rural work camps.  By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, as many as 20 million people had died.

So given that fraud is widespread, and that less than 50 years ago, parents could not even trust their own children, it is easy to understand why Chinese citizens would embrace a system that helps them know who to trust. 

The Time article quoted a shopkeeper in Chongqing as saying “Chinese people don’t care about privacy. We want security. It’s still not enough cameras. We need more.”  A high school teacher added:  “Because of the Social Credit system, vehicles politely let pedestrians cross the street, and during a recent blizzard people volunteered to clear the snow to earn extra points,”

No matter how sanguine Chinese citizens are about this, there can be no doubt that technology is being used to shape citizens’ behavior.  Details of a few key examples will appear in my next five minute post on mass surveillance.

4 thoughts on “China’s social credit system: Myths and realities

  1. Pingback: China’s social credit system: Myths and realities — Understanding China, five minutes at a time – New Human New Earth Communities

  2. I spoke to a Chinese scientist about this recently, and she told me that the big obstacle to these programs is a data management problem. The data necessary to make this system work is spotty, and even so there is far too much data collected in too many different ways and formats to integrate into the kind of system that the surveillance hawks envision. This is just one of the many reasons that there is such a big push to develop better AI systems. Without very smart machine learning and AI systems, the dream (nightmare) will never become reality.


  3. Pingback: China’s mass surveillance technology | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

  4. Pingback: Artificial Intelligence:  China’s Race to be Number One | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

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