Peace Through Coercion: China’s Social Credit System


A country with 1.4 billion people, China has one vital defect – its people are unable to trust each other. According to sociologist Zhang Lifan, this is a result of the Cultural Revolution, a period of Chinese history where family and friends would report each other to the authorities for infracting government doctrine. Therefore, Chinese people are anxious about getting in trouble.

In an effort to address this issue, the Chinese Communist Party has introduced its Social Credit System. This is a scoring based system that utilises Big Data and surveillance to reward and punish organisations and people based on their behaviours, this forces people to become more trustworthy and good citizens. From the outside, this system has been described by Bloomberg as “a creepy digital panopticon,” a system that is constantly watching your every move, forcing you to always be on your best behaviour. It has also been compared to the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’, in which life is governed by an app that allows people to rate one another – your rating would impact what services you could access and, most importantly, how others saw you. However, to compare that episode to the Chinese Social Credit System is not entirely accurate; instead, the scores that people are given are much like western style credit scores except they are publicly accessible and much more extensive. You can lose 5 points for getting a traffic ticket but if you are doing exemplary business or helping your family through touch circumstances then you get 30 points.

The most notable difference between the Social Credit System and ‘Nosedive’ is that these scores come from the government itself. However, for citizens in China this system is welcomed, as people see the loss of privacy as a small price to pay in order to bring about more trust. There are also additional bonuses for individuals who have high scores like discount off heating bills and better bank loan conditions. To give further context to China’s social issues, in 2014 the LA Times wrote about how Chinese people were becoming increasingly afraid to help distressed elderly out on the streets because time and time again they would extort these good Samaritans by claiming that they had knocked them down or injured them. There are also a plethora of videos online where people jump in front of vehicles and then demand compensation from the drivers. Additionally, in 2008 Chinese infant powder was adulterated with melamine to make them appear higher in protein – this led to 54,000 babies being hospitalised due to kidney failure. This brought into question China’s food safety standards and revealed government corruption. More than a decade later, the Chinese people still have a hard time trusting its dairy industry. In order to eradicate these scandals, China first began trials of the Social Credit System in 2014 with plans to implement a standardised nation-wide programme by 2020.

There’s no doubt that China does have a trust issue. But despite its rationale or its intentions behind implementing a social credit system, the programme still grossly violates human rights. The government may state that the system creates a more peaceful society, but that is merely artificial. The Social Credit System is really just a disciplinary machine using the latest technology. According to Rick Falkvinge, who wrote for Privacy News Online, the system can track your online purchases, rewarding you for buying dishwashers or baby products, but it’ll deduct points if you buy video games. Just like that, it has the ability to tell you what is “good” behaviour and what is “bad.” Furthermore, the consequences for having low scores have very far-reaching implications for everyday life, like not being able to buy train or plane tickets, not being able to send your children to good schools, or limiting internet access. However, the most damaging effect the Social Credit System has is to your social image because scores are public for everyone else to see. In a country where saving face is very important, those who are blacklisted due to poor credit scores are disgraced. Meanwhile it also forces others to conform out of fear. A low score can also affect your friends and family, which adds further pressure to conform so you don’t negatively impact those around you. Therefore, Chinese citizens have no choice but to act according to the guidelines set out by the government. This also stifles freedom of speech. Anyone who speaks out against the government or this system will also have points deducted against them: not only will it bar them from many social services, they will lose friends as a result. Adam Minter, writing for Bloomberg , stated that in a 2018 survey 80% of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve the credit system, but it’s difficult to really gather the true sentiments of Chinese individuals. Minter also stated that “More surprisingly…the strongest support [came] from older, educated and more affluent urbanites- a demographic generally associated with more “liberal” values such as the sanctity of privacy. ” However, he failed to consider that the system in itself is elitist. It is ironic because the goal of social scoring is to preserve China’s communist values, yet they have apparently failed to see how it benefits the rich and disadvantages the poor. The Social Credit System allows citizens to redeem its score by paying donations to the government and doing good deeds in the community. All of which can be done, with enough money. In fact, those with sufficient cash can certainly slip enough under the table to sort anything out. So of course it’s the educated and affluent that aren’t worried about the programme. Furthermore they much less likely to get into debt or default on payments. In reality, China’s trust issue isn’t really being solved by using this system, or if it is, it is only by coercing people to become ‘trustworthy’.

 

Instead of building trust, the government is really creating unwavering obedience to its ideology. This is really not much different to China’s Cultural Revolution period. If the government really wants to establish trust in its society then they need to take a page from lassiez-faire economics and let consumer choice decide on their confidence in people and businesses. For example, Amazon utilises a buyer’s review system where information about the quality of a product or the customer service provided by the seller can be promoted or critiqued. This forces businesses to be better and more reliable in order to get more people to purchase their products. Although like the Social Credit System, it gives businesses a rating, the criteria is set by people themselves rather than forcing society to follow a national standardised guideline. The other root to China’s trust issue is corruption within its government departments. This has been a problem that China’s President Xi Jinping has vowed to eliminate since coming into power in 2012. According to China Daily, in 2018 621,000 people were punished for corruption. However, China’s current approach relies on heavy handed punishments like imprisonment and death sentences. The government should use incentives to create loyalty amongst its employees rather than further pushing the idea of obedience. This gives public officials a reason not to cut corners, accept bribes or cheat the system. This would be especially effective if the benefits of working as an upstanding government official outweighed that of being corrupt. By eliminating corruption coming from its central system, people will have a sense of holistic ease because the organisation which overlooks the itself economy is trustworthy. But the truth is a computer programme simply can’t create trust which is a human connection. It can only be fostered through social interactions and having a sense of security from the community. That’s why in order to really form trust amongst its citizens, the government really needs to address some of its social problems which underlie it. One of the biggest is China’s large income inequality. Over the past decade China’s economy boom and its middle class became wealthier. However, the economic benefits weren’t felt evenly, Leaving a large proportion of its rural community seemingly forgotten. In the past this might not have been a huge problem as children were expected to provide for their parents welfare as they grow up. However, with the one child policy, family sizes decreased and the number of elderly people have overtaken the young. Unfortunately, poverty forces people to commit crimes like running scams and extorting people. That is why for a period, Chinese people no longer wanted to help those around them. The answer to this would be having better social welfare to look after the well-being of these people. Subsequently, the rate of crime will go down because as people are not forced unlawful tactics. Additionally, the Chinese society would become more altruistic as people no longer need to focus on achieving basic needs. As more people have a sense of personal security, they are more likely to become more open and helping of others around them. The Social Credit System was created for this effect in order to manage civil unrest and bring about peace in the rapidly growing country. Although on the surface level it appears to have been effective, the real social problems that China is facing has not been addressed. China hopes to implement this technology to all its provinces by 2020 so we have not seen the full impact of the technology, it is hard to tell whether it will improve China problems or send it into a the dystopia universe we all fear.

Angie Sun

A recent graduate of Conflict Resolution studies with a particular interest in Chinese international relations. Also a huge advocate for Track II diplomacy and mediation as a way to address conflict.

About Angie Sun

A recent graduate of Conflict Resolution studies with a particular interest in Chinese international relations. Also a huge advocate for Track II diplomacy and mediation as a way to address conflict.