Social Credit System
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The Social Credit System (Chinese: 社会信用体系; pinyin: shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì) is a national reputation system being developed by the Chinese government. By 2020, it is intended to standardise the assessment of citizens' and businesses' economic and social reputation, or 'Social Credit'.
|Social Credit System|
The system will be one unified system and there will be a single system-wide social credit score for each citizen and business. By 2018, some restrictions had been placed on citizens, which state-owned media described as the first step toward creating a national social credit system.
The system is considered a form of mass surveillance which uses big data analysis technology. The government of modern China has also maintained systems of paper records on individuals and households such as the dàng'àn (档案) and hùkǒu (户口) systems which officials might refer to, but did not provide the same degree and rapidity of feedback and consequences for Chinese citizens as the integrated electronic system because of the much greater difficulty of aggregating paper records for rapid, robust analysis.
The social credit system traces its origin from both policing and work management practices. During the rule of Mao, the work unit was the main intermediate between the individual and the Communist Party of China. The unit concept, as such, is derived from Hegelian and especially behaviorist social science. Other related examples include the neighbourhood unit in developments, study of living creatures at the level of a defined ecological unit, the entity concept from accounting, the strategic business unit in commerce, the unit concept of church fellowship in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the use of individual behavior as the unit of study in radical behaviorism, and the meme in anthropology.
The Social Credit System also originated from Grid-style social management, a policing strategy first implemented in select locations from 2001 and 2002 (during the rule of Chinese Paramount Leader Hu Jintao) in specific locations across mainland China. In its first phase, grid-style policing was a system for more effective communication between public security bureaus. Within a few years the grid system was adapted for use in distributing social services. Grid management provided the authorities not only with greater situational awareness on the group level, but also enhanced the tracking and monitoring of individuals.
In 2018, sociologist Zhang Lifan explained that Chinese society today is still deficient in trust. People often expect to be cheated or to get in trouble even if they are innocent. He believes that it is due to the Cultural Revolution, where friends and family members were deliberately pitted against each other and millions of Chinese were killed. The stated purpose of the social credit system is to help Chinese people trust each other again.
Implementation by Chinese governmentEdit
The Social Credit System is an example of China's "top-level design" (顶层设计) approach. It is coordinated by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms.
It is unclear whether the system will work as envisioned by 2020, but the Chinese government has fast-tracked the implementation of the system, resulting in the publication of numerous policy documents and plans since the main plan was issued in 2014. If the Social Credit System is implemented as envisioned, it will constitute a new way of controlling both the behavior of individuals and of businesses.
Progress of implementation (2013–present)Edit
In 2013, the Supreme People's Court (SPC) of China started a blacklist of debtors with roughly thirty two thousand names. The list has since been described as a first step towards a national Social Credit System by state-owned media.
In 2015, the People's Bank of China licensed eight companies to begin a trial of social credit systems. Among these eight firms is Sesame Credit, owned by Alibaba Group, Tencent, as well as China's biggest ride-sharing and online-dating service, Didi Chuxing and Baihe.com, respectively. In general, multiple firms are collaborating with the government to develop the system of software and algorithms used to calculate credit. The SPC also began working with private companies – for example, Sesame Credit began deducting credit points from people who defaulted on court fines.
In 2017, no licenses to private companies were granted. The reasons include conflict of interest, the remaining control of the government, as well as the lack of cooperation in data sharing among the firms that participate in the development. However, the Social Credit System's operation by a seemingly external association, such as a formal collaboration between private firms, has not been ruled out yet. Private companies have also signed contracts with provincial governments to set up the basic infrastructure for the Social Credit System at a provincial level.
As of March 2017, 137 commercial credit reporting companies are active on the Chinese market. As part of the development of the Social Credit System, the Chinese government has been monitoring the progress of third-party Chinese credit rating systems.
As of February 2018[update], no comprehensive, nation-wide social credit system exists, but there are multiple pilots testing the system on a local level as well as in specific sectors of industry. One such program has been implemented in Shanghai through its Honest Shanghai app, which uses facial recognition software to browse government records, and rates users accordingly.
In March 2018, Reuters reported that restrictions on citizens and businesses with low Social Credit ratings, and thus low trustworthiness, would come into effect on May 1st. By May 2018, several million flight and high-speed train trips had been denied to people who had been blacklisted.
In April 2018, journalist Simina Mistreanu described a community where people's social credit scores were posted near the village center.
As of mid-2018, it was unclear whether the system will be an 'ecosystem' of various scores and blacklists run by both government agencies and private companies, or if it will be one unified system. It is also unclear whether there will be a single system-wide social credit score for each citizen and business.
In November, a detailed plan was produced for further implementation of the program for 2018–2020. The plans included black listing people from public transport and publicly disclosing individuals' and businesses' untrustworthiness rating.
In January 2019, Beijing government officially announced that it will start to test "Personal Credit Score".
In April 2019, the People's Bank Of China announces that a new version of Personal Credit Report will be put which allows to collect more personal information. State-run media has described it as "more detailed, more comprehensive and more precisely"
In May 2019, Beijing announced that some inappropriate behavior in the subway could result in the person being blacklisted.
National plans and local government Social Credit System pilotsEdit
As of 2018, over forty different Social Credit System experiments were implemented by local governments in different Chinese provinces. The pilot programs began following the release of the 2014 “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” by Chinese authorities. The government oversees the creation and development of these governmental pilots by requesting they each publish a regular “interdepartmental agreement on joint enforcement of rewards and punishments for ‘trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ conduct.”
In December 2017 the National Development and Reform Commission and People's Bank of China selected “model cities” that demonstrated the steps needed to make a functional and efficient implementation of the Social Credit System. Among them are Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Weifang, Yiwu, and Rongcheng. These pilots were deemed successful in their handling of “blacklists and ‘redlists’”, their creation of “credit sharing platforms”, and their “data sharing efforts with the other cities”. The local government Social Credit System 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: Citizens often begin with an initial score, to which points are added or deducted depending on their actions. The specific amount of points for each action are often listed in publicly available catalogs. Cities also experimented with a multi-level system, in which districts decide on scorekeepers who are responsible for reporting scores to higher-ups. Some experiments also allowed citizens to appeal the scores they were attributed.
The government alleges these systems mean to penalize citizens generally agreed as ‘untrustworthy’. They claim they will be able to “change people’s behavior by ensuring they are closely associated with it.” Researchers[who?], however, argue the system will be part of the government's plan to automate their authoritarian rule over the Chinese population. According to Genia Kostka, a Professor of Chinese Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin, “if successful in [their] effort, the Communist Party will possess a powerful means of quelling dissent, one that is comparatively low-cost and which does not require the overt (and unpopular) use of coercion by the state.”
Commercial Social Credit System pilotsEdit
There are also commercial pilots developed by private Chinese conglomerates that have an authorization from the state to test out social credit experiments. The pilots are more widespread than their local government counterparts, but function on an voluntary basis: Citizens can decide to opt-out of these systems at any time on request. Users with good scores are offered advantages such as easier access to credit loans, discounts for car and bike sharing services, fast-tracked visa application, or free health check-ups and preferential treatment at hospitals. The algorithms used to assign scores in commercial pilots remain unknown, although sources say some pilots use a big-data analysis and artificial intelligence approach.
In 2015, the People's Bank of China issued temporary licenses to eight companies for the creation of commercial pilots, among them Zhima Credit owned by Ant Financial Services, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group Holding, and Tencent Credit owned by Tencent Holdings. However, in 2017 the People's Bank of China refused to transform their licenses into official ones, citing concerns regarding conflict of interest in the companies development of systems that may in the future assign their own scores. Instead it issued a jointly owned license to “Baihang Credit” valid for three years. Baihang Credit is co-owned by the National Internet Finance Association (36%) and the eight other companies (8% each), allowing the state to maintain control and oversee the creation of a new commercial pilot.
Implementation of technology platformEdit
It is unclear what technology will be used in the fully implemented system. As of mid 2018, only pilot schemes have been tested. Some of the technology is provided by the Alibaba Group's Ant Financial which operates the Sesame Credit loyalty program. Alibaba is China's largest conglomerate of online services, including the largest online shopping and payment providers. In November 2017, Sesame Credit's general manager, Hu Tao, denied that Sesame Credit data is shared with the Chinese government. There are also seven other technology partners.
The Chinese government aims at assessing the trustworthiness and compliance of each person.[clarification needed] The data collected stems both from peoples' own accounts, as well as their network's activities. Website operators can mine the traces of data that users exchange with websites and derive a full social profile that includes location, friends, health records, insurance, private messages, financial position, gaming duration, smart home statistics, preferred newspapers, shopping history, and dating behaviour.[clarification needed]
Implications for citizensEdit
From the Chinese government's Plan for Implementation, the SCS is due to be fully implemented by 2020. Once implemented the system will manage the rewards, or punishments, of citizens on the basis of their economic and personal behavior. Some types of punishments include: flight ban, exclusion from private schools, slow internet connection, exclusion from high prestige work, exclusion from hotels, and registration on a public blacklist.
By the end of 2018, 5.5 million high-speed rail trips and 17.5 million flights had been denied to prospective travellers who were on a blacklist. The exact reasons for being placed on the list are unknown. Business Insider speculated that the reason could be the debtors list created by the SPC.
Exclusion from private schoolsEdit
If the parents of a child were to score below a certain threshold, their children would be excluded from the top schools in the region.
One's personal score could be used as a social symbol on social and couples platforms. For example, China's biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, already allows its users to publish their own score.
Repression of religious minoritiesEdit
City-level pilot projects for the social credit score system have included rewarding individuals for aiding authorities in enforcing restrictions of religious practices, including coercing practitioners of Falun Gong to renounce their beliefs[dubious ] and reporting on Uighurs who publicly pray, fast during Ramadan, or perform other Islamic practices.
A Hebei court released an app showing a "map of deadbeat debtors" within 500 meters and encouraged users to report individuals who they believed could repay their debts. A spokesman of the court stated that "It's a part of our measures to enforce our rulings and create a socially credible environment."
The rewards of having a high score include easier access to loans and jobs and priority during bureaucratic paperwork. Likewise, the immediate negative consequences for a low score, or being associated to someone with a low score, ranges from lower internet speeds to being denied access to certain jobs, loans and visas.
Implications for businessesEdit
Among other things, the Social Credit System is meant to provide an answer to the problem of lack of trust on the Chinese market. Proponents argue that it will help eliminate problems such as food safety issues, cheating, and counterfeit goods. China claims its aim is to enhance trust and social stability by creating a “culture of sincerity”.
For businesses, the Social Credit System is meant to serve as a market regulation mechanism. The goal is to establish a self-enforcing regulatory regime fueled by big data in which businesses exercise “self-restraint” (企业自我约束). The basic idea is that with a functional credit system in place, companies will comply with government policies and regulations to avoid having their scores lowered by disgruntled employees, customers or clients. As currently envisioned, companies with good credit scores will enjoy benefits such as good credit conditions, lower tax rates, and more investment opportunities. Companies with bad credit scores will potentially face unfavorable conditions for new loans, higher tax rates, investment restrictions, and lower chances to participate in publicly funded projects. Government plans also envision real-time monitoring of a business’ activities. In that case, infractions on the part of a business could result in a lowered score almost instantly. However, whether this will actually happen depends on the future implementation of the system as well as on the availability of technology needed for this kind of monitoring.
The Social Credit System will be limited to Mainland China and thus does not apply to Hong Kong and Macau. However, at present, plans do not distinguish between Chinese companies and foreign companies operating on the Chinese market, raising the possibility that foreign businesses operating in China will be subjected to the system as well.
Public Opinion in ChinaEdit
Approval of the Social Credit SystemEdit
Despite the novelty of these initiatives, many pilot projects have already achieved broad coverage and are deeply embedded in Chinese citizens’ everyday life. Part of the literature on the subject suggests that Chinese citizens develop differentiated judgements of the Social Credit System according to who manages them and how they are run. Early studies highlight the importance of socio-demographic factors in explaining the variation in public opinion.
A “nationwide online survey” was carried out “between February and April of 2018” to gather information on public approval of the Social Credit System. It found that “80% of respondents are either somewhat approving or strongly (49%) approving the system, 19% of respondents perceive the Social Credit System in value-neutral terms (neither disapprove nor approve) while just 1% reported either strong or somewhat disapproval”.
The survey also put forward how the approval of the Social Credit System differs according to the type of system (i.e. commercial or governmental). Thus it was found that approval is “highest among respondents who are part of a local government SCS pilot, with 64% of these respondents indicating strong approval of SCSs in general” whereas only 55% of respondents taking part in a commercial SCS pilot strongly approve of the latter.
Levels of approval, as shown by the survey, vary according to “age, income, gender, education, and region”. Specifically, the 51–65 age group prove to be the most approving of the Socal Credit Systems. Approval of the Social Credit System is also stronger for citizens with a higher income. The study also found there to be no significant differences in approval between male and female respondents, with “male respondents being slightly more positive”. In terms of the impact of education, it appears that strength of approval is correlated with higher levels of education, and therefore those with lower education levels tend to approve less strongly of the Social Credit Systems. There are two distinct geographical factors that impact, more or less, public opinion on the Social Credit System. The first being levels of urbanisation. Indeed, “approval levels are higher in cities than in rural areas (82% versus 68%)”. The second is the regional factor which in fact doesn't play an influential role in approval levels: “Respondents in West China have a slightly more positive attitude (81% approve or strongly approve), followed by East China (80%) and Central China (79%).” 
The study also pinpoints what tends to characterise the “doubters” of the Social Credit System, in which the doubters represent the “20% of respondents who either strongly or somewhat disapprove or neither disapprove nor approve”. They tend to be younger, receive a lower income as well as having received lower levels of education, they are somewhat “more likely to be female” and quite likely to be living in rural areas.
The gap in approval between urban and rural citizens of the SCSs is argued to be correlated with access to benefits from the latter. Indeed, 29% of respondents in rural areas reported having “received some type of disadvantage as a result of their participation in an SCS, while fewer urban respondents reported having received disadvantages (25%)”. As a concrete example, “5% of rural respondents reported difficulties in obtaining credit because of their social credit score”, whereas, for the respondents from urban areas, this percentage was of only 2%. Certain citizens also view benefits from commercial SCSs as “biased against rural citizens as they do not have as good use for benefits (as opposed to city residents) and most importantly, because they are limited by income and other factors to increase their score.”
In general, citizens seem to value SCSs as an instrument to improve quality of life as oppose to an instrument of surveillance. On top of this, citizens believe that SCSs could lead to a more honest and law-abiding society by helping close regulatory gaps. It is also important to note that as SCSs are still currently in a pilot phase, the outlook citizens have on the latter could shift as the system develops a more definitive form.
Some citizens have repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the unfairness of scoring methods, for example the difficulty of restoring credit and peer-to-peer judgement of scores. It has been noted that low social credit ratings can cause harm to citizens despite the fact that "personal hardship, debt accumulation due to illness and other family reasons can result in a low social credit rating". Others raised concerns that the scoring system may not apply to everyone equally because "people in powerful positions of responsibility might escape punishments.”
The system has been implicated in a number of controversies. Of particular note is how it is applied to individuals as well as companies. People have already faced various punishments for violating social protocols. The system has been used to already block nine million people with "low scores" from purchasing domestic flights. While still in the preliminary stages, the system has been used to ban people and their children from certain schools, prevent low scorers from renting hotels, using credit cards, and blacklist individuals from being able to procure employment. The system has also been used to rate individuals on their internet habits (excessive online gaming reduces one's score), personal shopping habits, and a variety of other personal and wholly innocuous acts that have no impact on the wider community. Criticism of this program has been widespread with the proposed system being described by Human Rights Watch as "chilling" and filled with arbitrary abuses.
Vision Times labeled the system as a mass surveillance tool and mass disciplinary machine.
Comparison to other countriesEdit
In 2018, the New Economics Foundation compared the Chinese citizen score to other rating systems in the United Kingdom. These included using data from a citizen's credit score, phone usage, rent payment, etc. to filter job applications, determine access to social services, determine advertisements served, etc.
In February 2018, Handelsblatt Global reported that Germany may be "sleep walking" towards a system comparable to China's. Using data from the universal credit rating system, Schufa, geolocation and health records to determine access to credit and health insurance.
- Blacklist (employment)
- Social exclusion
- Mass surveillance in China
- Nudge theory
- "Nosedive" (Black Mirror)
- "Majority Rule" (The Orville)
- "App Development and Condiments" (Community)
- Public records in China
- Sesame Credit
- Surveillance capitalism
- Whisper network
- Whuffie, a reputation-based currency in the science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
- Better Business Bureau Rating system
- Home Office hostile environment policy in the UK
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