The Chinese Government is implementing a Social Credit System which they hope will keep their citizens in check, and the rest of the world is watching to see how it goes. This system is often mischaracterized in western media as a centralized government system which provides an actual social credit score to each Chinese citizen based on their actions. While some cities in China are experimenting with this concept the system as a whole is a web of several data gathering and data storing tools. These tools are operated by the government as well as the commercial sector in China, and are quickly becoming more integrated. The purpose is to create a massive data picture of the entire population. The conglomeration of these data systems creates a web meant to trap the citizens of China into acceptable social behavior in hopes of maintaining public stability and continued economic growth.
The social credit system concept was introduced to the world in 2014 when the Chinese government released “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020).” The Chinese government stated that this system will, “… allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” The communist government of China has always maintained close observation and control over their population through all means possible, to ensure the continued existence and domination of the communist party. Prior to the digital age the Chinese government used a system of internal passports known as hukou to control citizen mobility and monitor where people lived and worked. The massive urbanization of the past several decades proved too great a strain for this system, and the government sought to utilize technology to better monitor their citizenry. Economic growth and the creation of a digital marketplace has provided China with the means to do this.
The most quantifiable aspect of the social credit system can be found in the implementation of government ‘blacklists’. Various government agencies will publish ‘blacklists’ for those citizens, companies, and even local government bodies who have violated a misdemeanor level law, failed to pay their debts, or have committed fraud. They will also publish ‘Redlists’ comprised of those who are considered upstanding models for society based on their observed actions. According to a report from business insider, “China’s social credit system has blocked people from taking 11.14 million flights and 4.25 million high-speed train trips.” Most of these citizens were blocked because of a ‘blacklist’ published by the Supreme People’s Court. This specific ‘blacklist’ is known as the, “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement,” and is comprised of citizens and businesses who do not follow court orders, lose a civil suit, or commit fraudulent acts. The punishments for being added to the list include not only air and train travel bans, but also exclusion from private schools, government subsidy programs, luxury hotels, and much more. Some Chinese citizens have had trouble removing themselves from the government ‘blacklists’ even after rectifying the infraction which landed them on the list. Overall the Chinese citizenry seem to be in favor of the concept, but largely unaware of its consequences unless directly affected. Zhang Lili a researcher at Peking University’s China Credit Research Center echoes the sentiment of many Chinese citizens, “Because the Chinese market economy didn’t take centuries to expand like in the West, people need the government to keep companies and businesspeople in check, as well as to ensure a smooth urbanization.”
The social credit system goes beyond just the blacklists, though. Several commercial entities provide their customers with the ability to sign up and receive a social credit score which will allow them to garner benefits such as leasing a bicycle with no deposit or even receiving better health insurance. These commercial systems often utilize the government published ‘blacklists’ and ‘redlists’ to adjust the social credit of their users. Taking it one step further, thirty-six cities across China are also experimenting with the use of an actual social credit number similar to an individual credit score in the United States but which incorporates not only financial transactions, but also public infractions and public service. For example, those who volunteer or donate money to charity can see an addition to their score while traffic infractions can reduce the score. The overlap of each social credit program provides a system which encompasses much of the individual Chinese citizen’s life.
The citizens of China may see the implementation of the social credit system as a positive, because overall the concepts of individual liberty have been openly suppressed under the communist regime. Post-Enlightenment Western Society however, is based on the concepts of individual liberty and individual responsibility. The result is an almost natural aversion to Orwellian government systems seeking to observe and control our lives. The implementation of a single government-centered social credit system goes completely contrary to our desire for freedom, and would doubtlessly be fought by citizens on both sides of the political aisle. The decentralized efforts being implemented in China provide a much more insidious opponent. The financial credit score has long been accepted as a useful societal norm in Western Society. Social media platforms have given us the ability to crudely rate other individuals on their thoughts and perspectives based on a currency of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. Insurance companies offer devices which can be installed into vehicles to monitor safe driving in exchange for decreased prices. Most businesses will perform a check of perspective new hires’ social media accounts prior to offering employment to ensure they are not advertising any socially controversial actions on their profile pages. The social credit score is not being orchestrated in the West by governments, but it is taking shape none the less because information can be recorded, recalled, and shared nearly instantaneously.
According to a Foreign Policy report, “The national credit system planned for 2020 will be an ‘ecosystem’ made up of schemes of various sizes and reaches, run by cities, government ministries, online payment providers, down to neighborhoods, libraries, and businesses … It will all be interconnected by an invisible web of information.” The government of China is actively seeking to create a decentralized web of ‘carrots and sticks’ to control their population. Global economic integration ensures that western businesses operating in China will become intertwined with this social credit system. They will be observing to see what parts if any they can use to improve their market position. Governments too will be watching to see how this new social framework affects China. If we are not careful here in the United States and Western Society as a whole, we could find ourselves caught in our own decentralized web of control, self-inflicted and created out of our desire for convenience, security, and economic advantage.
Written by NEWSREP guest author, Micah Olsen.
Micah is a Reconnaissance Man in the United States Marine Corps with over 13 years in the Marine Corps, including combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as theater security cooperation deployments in Latin America. He has a Bachelor of Science in Global Business from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is continually seeking further educational opportunities. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where he is slowly remodeling a newly purchased home with his beautiful wife and their awesome dog.