China’s “Social Credit” System: An Orwellian Society In The Future?


Since its announcement of establishing a nationwide “social credit” system by 2020, China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has once again found itself caught by international criticisms for serious human rights violations. International news press such as the Globe and Mail claims that by building a system that uses big data – including CCTV camera footage and smartphone apps – to track “every moment of its citizens lives,” China is creating a Totalitarian nightmare in curbing individual freedom and human rights. Even politicians like the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is famous for his hawkish attitude towards China, also warns that: “China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”

However, before taking for granted that China is building an Orwellian society, it is important to take a closer look at how this “social credit” system will really function. In essence, this system comprises of government agencies, state-owned enterprises, social organizations, and private companies, and they will collaborate with each other in sharing data information and tracking individuals’ behavior. Those who have bad records of behaving immorally and even illegally (such as defaulting loan payment, committing fraud, or violating traffic rules) will be penalized. According to the Central Government, the main focus of this system is not on political trustworthiness; instead, it ultimately aims to improve creditworthiness and honesty of individuals, businesses, and even government agencies, so that the overall trust within the society – which has been struck by various incidents such as the 2008 Milk Scandal – could be rebuilt.

While this system is not yet complete, there are already pilot programs being initiated by government agencies. For instance, the State Information Center and Bank of China have worked together in establishing Credit China – an integrated national online platform – to track and report people that have been on the blacklist for offensive behavior. In the Shandong Province, the local government even introduced a system for rating people’s behavior. Those who act dishonestly or immorally will obtain low scores, and may even have their access to transportation, banking, and other social services, restricted. From the outset, it seems that such a “social credit” system is a promising way of holding offenders accountable. According to an online survey conducted by Freie Universität Berlin, 80 percent of Chinese internet users take a positive view of this system, believing that it will help to rebuild trust in society.

Nevertheless, the implementation of this “social credit” system will come along with very serious concerns and issues related to human rights and privacy protection. Some of these issues will include: How could individuals’ sensitive information and privacy be respected and protected under the system? How could this system hold the government officials, which clearly possess power and authority, accountable when they behave without honesty or integrity? How could transparency as well as checks and balance be incorporated into the system, so that government agencies can be prevented from abusing this system and harming public interest? And finally, how could the Chinese Government convince its citizens as well as foreign observers that, its aim is to rebuild trust and creditworthiness among people rather than establish an Orwellian society?