Social Credit System
The Social Credit System (Chinese: 社会信用体系; pinyin: shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì) is a national blacklist being developed by the government of the People’s Republic of China under General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping's administration. The program initiated regional trials in 2009, before launching a national pilot with eight credit scoring firms in 2014. It was first introduced formally by then Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, on October 20th, 2011 during one of the State Council Meetings. In 2018, these efforts were centralized under the People's Bank of China with participation from the eight firms. By 2020,[needs update] it was intended to standardize the assessment of citizens' and businesses' economic and social reputation, or 'Social Credit'.
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The social credit initiative calls for the establishments of unified record system for individuals, businesses and the government to be tracked and evaluated for trustworthiness. Initial reports suggested that the system utilized numerical score as the reward and punishment mechanism; recent reports suggest there are in fact multiple, different forms of the social credit system being experimented with. Numerical system has been implemented only in several regional pilot programs, while the nationwide regulatory method has been based primarily on blacklisting and whitelisting. The credit system is closely related to China's mass surveillance systems such as Skynet, which incorporates facial recognition system, big data analysis technology, AI and Project Maven.
By 2018, some restrictions had been placed on citizens which state-owned media described as the first step toward creating a nationwide social credit system. As of November 2019, in addition to dishonest and fraudulent financial behavior, other behavior that some cities have officially listed as negative factors of credit ratings includes playing loud music or eating in rapid transits, violating traffic rules such as jaywalking and red-light violations, making reservations at restaurants or hotels but not showing up, failing to correctly sort personal waste, fraudulently using other people's public transportation ID cards, smoking violations etc; on the other hand, behavior listed as positive factors of credit ratings includes donating blood, donating to charity, volunteering for community services, praising government efforts on social media, and so on.
As of June 2019, according to the National Development and Reform Commission of China, 27 million air tickets as well as 6 million high-speed rail tickets had been denied to people who were deemed "untrustworthy (失信)" (on a blacklist), and 4.4 million "untrustworthy" people had chosen to fulfill their duties required by the law. In general, it takes 2–5 years to be removed from the blacklist, but early removal is also possible if the blacklisted person has done enough remedies. Certain personal information of the blacklisted people is deliberately made accessible to the society and is displayed online as well as at various public venues such as movie theaters and buses, while some cities have also banned children of "untrustworthy" residents from attending private schools and even universities. On the other hand, people with high credit ratings may receive rewards such as less waiting time at hospitals and governmental agencies, discounts at hotels, greater likelihood of receiving employment offers and so on.
Supporters of the Credit System claim that the system helps to regulate social behavior, improve the "trustworthiness" which includes paying taxes and bills on time and promote traditional moral values, while critics of the system claim that it oversteps the rule of law and infringes the legal rights of residents and organizations, especially the right to reputation, the right to privacy as well as personal dignity, and that the system may be a tool for comprehensive government surveillance and for suppression of dissent from the Communist Party of China.
The social credit system traces its origin from both policing and work management practices, but the concept itself can trace as far back as the Warring States period to Shang Yang's Legalist meritocratic "20-rank" system practised by the Qin state. 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 neighborhood 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 government of modern China has 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 also originated from grid-style social management, a policing strategy first implemented in select locations from 2001 and 2002 (during the rule of paramount leader Jiang Zemin) 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.
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 2013. 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.
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 and operated by Ant Financial), Tencent, as well as China's biggest ride-sharing and online-dating services, Didi Chuxing and Baihe.com, respectively. In general, multiple firms collaborated with the government to develop the system of software and algorithms used to calculate credit.
The Chinese central government originally considered having the Social Credit System be run by a private firm, but by 2017 it has acknowledged the need for third-party administration. In 2017, no licenses to private companies were granted. By mid-2017, the Chinese government had decided that none of the pilots would receive authorization to be official credit reporting measures. 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. In November 2017, Sesame Credit denied that Sesame Credit data was shared with the Chinese government. As of mid 2018, only pilot schemes had been tested.
Private companies have also signed contracts with provincial governments to set up the basic infrastructure for the Social Credit System at the provincial level. As of March 2017, 137 commercial credit reporting companies were 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.
Social credit systems
There are multiple social credit systems in China right now. Scholars have conceptualized four different types of systems: the judicial system (blacklist system for discredited individuals and organizations), municipal social credit system, People's Bank of China financial credit system, and commercial credit-rating system. These four systems are not interconnected seamlessly, but relevantly independent from each other with their own jurisdictions, rules, and logic.
In 2013, the Supreme People's Court (SPC) of China started a blacklist of debtors with roughly 32,000 names. The list has since been described as a first step towards a national Social Credit System by state-owned media. The SPC also began working with private companies – for example, Sesame Credit began deducting credit points from people who defaulted on court fines.
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 1. By May 2018, several million flight and high-speed train trips had been denied to people who had been blacklisted; as of March 2019, 13 million people were on the list.
There are also commercial pilots developed by private Chinese conglomerates that have the authorization from the state to test out social credit experiments. The pilots are more widespread than their local government counterparts, but function on a 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 2017, People's Bank of China 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.
In April 2019, the People's Bank of China announced that a new version of the Personal Credit Report would be put out which allows the ability to collect more personal information. State-run media has described it as "more detailed, more comprehensive and more precisely."
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 number 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.”
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 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 national 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.
Hong Kong and Macau
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.
The Hong Kong Government stated in July 2019 that claims that the social credit system will be rolled out in Hong Kong are "totally unfounded", and stated that the system will not be implemented there.
Examples of policies
The social credit policies vary greatly from city to city.
|Cities||Some of the local government policies|
According to the Chinese government's 2015 Plan for Implementation, the Social Credit System 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 for poor social credit include: flight ban, exclusion from private schools, slow internet connection, exclusion from high prestige work, exclusion from hotels, and registration on a public blacklist. While some rewards for good social credit include discounts on energy bills, being able to rent bikes and hotels without payment of a deposit, better interest rates at banks, Tax breaks, free use of Gyms, and Preference and Hospitals.
As of June 2019, according to the National Development and Reform Commission of China, 26.82 million air tickets as well as 5.96 million high-speed rail tickets had been denied to people who were deemed "untrustworthy(失信)" (on a blacklist), and 4.37 million "dishonest" people had chosen to fulfill their duties required by the law. In July 2019, additional 2.56 million flight tickets as well as 90 thousand high-speed train tickets were denied to those on the blacklist.
Exclusion from school admissions
A person with a bad social credit score may be denied employment in places as banks, State-owned enterprises, or as a business executive. The Chinese Government encourages people to consult the blacklist before making hiring decisions.
One's personal score could be used as a social symbol on social and couples platforms. For example, China's biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, allows its users to publish their own score.
Repression of religious minorities
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.[dubious ]
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, range from lower internet speeds to being denied access to certain jobs and loans.
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.
- In August 2019, assistant researcher Zhengjie Fan of China Institute of International Studies published an article, claiming that the current punishment policies such as the blacklist do not overstep the limits of law. He argued that since 2014, China's Social Credit System and the credit system of the market had grown to complement each other, forming a mutually beneficial interaction. According to Doing Business 2019 by World Bank Group which ranks "190 countries on the ease of doing business within their borders", China rose from 78th place in previous year to 46th place, and Fan claimed that the Social Credit System has played an important role.
- In August 2018, Professor Genia Kostka of Free University of Berlin published a research paper on China's Social Credit Systems (SCSs), based on a cross-regional internet survey of 2,209 Chinese citizens of various backgrounds. The study found "a surprisingly high degree of approval of SCSs across respondent groups" and that "more socially advantaged citizens (wealthier, better-educated and urban residents) show the strongest approval of SCSs, along with older people". Kostka explained in the paper that "while one might expect such knowledgeable citizens to be most concerned about the privacy implications of SCS, they instead appear to embrace SCSs because they interpret it through frames of benefit-generation and promoting honest dealings in society and the economy instead of privacy-violation." Although the study stated that 80% of Chinese citizens surveyed take a positive view of the social credit system in China, the legitimacy of the survey and sample size of said citizens has been questioned.
China's Social Credit System has been implicated in a number of controversies, especially given that Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese government led by Communist Party, have publicly opposed the western systems of constitutionalism, separation of powers, and judicial independence. Of particular note is how it is applied to individuals as well as companies, whether it is lawful, and whether it leads to Totalitarianism. People have already faced various punishments for violating social protocols. As of June 2019, the system has already been used to block the purchase of over 26 million domestic flight tickets from people who were deemed "dishonest". While still in the preliminary stages, the system has been used to ban people and their children from certain private schools, prevent low scorers from renting hotels, using credit cards, and blacklist individuals from being able to procure employment.
- In May 2020, Chinese investigative media group Caixin reported that business social credit systems in China were insufficient in deterring problematic business activities, and that the social credit system was easy to game in the favour of businesses.
- In October 2019, Professor Kui Shen of the Law School of Peking University published a paper in China Legal Science, suggesting that some of the current credit policies violated the "rule of law" or "Rechtsstaat": that they infringed the legal rights of residents and organizations, possibly violated the principle of respecting and protecting human rights, especially the right to reputation, the right to privacy as well as personal dignity, and oversteped the boundary of reasonable punishment.
- In June 2019, Samantha Hoffman of Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that "there are no genuine protections for the people and entities subject to the system... In China there is no such thing as the rule of law. Regulations that can be largely apolitical on the surface can be political when the Communist Party of China (CCP) decides to use them for political purposes."
- In January 2019, George Soros criticized the social credit system, saying it would give Xi, "total control" over the people of China."
- In January 2019, Forbes noted that "[f]or many that live outside of China, [the social credit system] feels more like one of the creepy 'Nosedive' episode of the British science fiction TV series Black Mirror."
- In October 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the social credit system, describing it as "an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life."
- In August 2018, Professor Genia Kostka of Free University of Berlin stated in her published paper (also cited under "Approvals" above) that "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."
- In May 2018, the Hill noted that "[t]he totalitarian 1984 of the future is now 2018 China."
- From 2017–2018, researchers argued that the credit system will be part of the government's plan to automate their authoritarian rule over the Chinese population.
- In December 2017, Human Rights Watch described the proposed social credit system as "chilling" and filled with arbitrary abuses.
- In July 2019, Wired reported that there existed misconceptions regarding the Social Credit System of China. It argued that "Western concerns about what could happen with China’s Social Credit System have in some ways outstripped discussions about what's already really occurring...The exaggerated portrayals may also help to downplay surveillance efforts in other parts of the world." The rise of misconception, according to Jeremy Daum of Yale University, is contributed by translation errors, the difference in word usage, and so on.
- In May 2019, Logic published an article by Shazeda Ahmed, who argued that "[f]oreign media has distorted the social credit system into a technological dystopia far removed from what is actually happening in China." She pointed out that common misconceptions included the beliefs that surveillance data is connected with a centralized database; that human activities online and offline are assigned with actual values that can be deducted, and that every citizen in China has a numerical score that is calculated by computer algorithm.
- In March and February, 2019, MIT Technology Review stated that, "[i]n the West, the system is highly controversial, and often portrayed as an AI-powered surveillance regime that violates human rights." However, the magazine reported that "many scholars argue that social credit scores won’t have the wide-scale controlling effect presumed...the system acts more as a tool of propaganda than a tool of enforcement", and that "[o]thers point out that it is simply an extension of Chinese culture’s long tradition of promoting good moral behavior and that Chinese citizens have a completely different perspective on privacy and freedom."
- In November 2018, Foreign Policy listed some factors which contributed to the misconception of China's credit system. The potential factors included the scale and variety of the social credit system program and the difficulties of comprehensive reporting that comes with it.
- In May 2018, Rogier Creemers of Leiden University stated that despite the Chinese government's intentions of utilizing big data and artificial intelligence, the regulatory method of SCS remained relatively crude. His research concluded that it is "... perhaps more accurate to conceive of the SCS as an ecosystem of initiatives broadly sharing a similar underlying logic, than a fully unified and integrated machine for social control."
Comparison to other countries
Since 1976, a database of loan debtors (the Directory of Commercial Information, DICOM) has been implemented to evaluate the financial and commercial risk of an individual or enterprise. People listed in DICOM find it harder to find housing, start businesses, get new loans and, though not the intended usage of the system, find jobs, since employers tend to check scores as a part of the selection process. There have been legal measures taken recently to reduce the negative impact of the system on people, such as banning the usage of DICOM status in determining access to medical attention and lawmakers derogating the DICOM status for educational loans. Once the debt has been paid, renegotiated or prescript, the debtor gets out of the list. There are also law firms that offer legal mechanisms to change the nature of the debt and invalidate the DICOM status.
In February 2018, Handelsblatt Global reported that Germany may be "sleep walking" towards a system comparable to China's. Data from the universal credit rating system Schufa, geolocation, and health records are being used to determine access to credit and health insurance.
Around 80% of Russians will reportedly get a digital profile that will document personal successes and failures in less than a decade under the government’s comprehensive plans to digitize the economy. Observers have compared this to China's social credit system, although Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov has denied that, saying a Chinese-style social credit system is a "threat".
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, and so on, to filter job applications, determine access to social services, determine advertisements served, etc.
Some media outlets have compared the social credit system to credit scoring systems in the United States. According to Fast Company, "increasing number of societal "privileges" related to transportation, accommodations, communications, and the rates we pay for services (like insurance) are either controlled by technology companies or affected by how we use technology services. And Silicon Valley's rules for being allowed to use their services are getting stricter."
In 2017, Venezuela started developing a smart-card ID known as the "carnet de la patria", or "fatherland card", with the help of the Chinese telecom company ZTE. The system included a database which stores details like birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party, and whether a person voted. Many in Venezuela have expressed concern that the card is an attempt to tighten social control through monitoring all aspects of daily life.
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