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China’s social credit systems - a step too far in a bid to shape a society?

China’s social credit systems - a step too far in a bid to shape a society?
13 Nov
The Chinese government aims to put a ‘social credit system’ in place by 2020; a virtual scoring platform that uses personal data to assess the behaviour and ‘trustworthiness’ of every citizen. But can 24/7 surveillance ever be a good thing, and is the growing accessibility of personal data placing the UK on a similar path?

Credit scores are a familiar part of life in the UK. Designed to indicate our financial reliability and determine access to various lenders, they take into account spending and repayment histories, personal debts, and public records, assigning us a number that indicates a level of trustworthiness. While you can attempt to raise your score, a low figure can have serious implications; lessening the chances of being able to obtain a mortgage, rent a property, buy a car, and in some cases, secure employment.

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Credit scoring is often viewed by critics as a system of control, urging us to make certain financial decisions under the threat of being figuratively tainted, but it may still be less intrusive than China’s prospective ‘social credit’ system (SCS), described by Fan Liang, a digital politics researcher at the University of Michigan, as a ‘state surveillance infrastructure’ that intends to ‘manage, monitor and predict the trustworthiness of citizens, firms, organisations, and governments.’

In essence, the system intends to not only track financial history, but the everyday actions of its 1.4 billion citizens to provide them with a score that indicates their ‘social’ credibility. It will collate big data to calculate an individual rating, taking into account things such as personal donations to charity, parental responsibilities, the nature of social media posts, traffic violations and hours spent playing videogames (time spent doing the latter being detrimental to the score). Companies will also be assigned a score based on tax payment speed and accuracy, and product fines, in the hope that this will create greater transparency in the economy.

Different social monitoring systems are being trialled across ChinaDifferent social monitoring systems are being trialled across China

According to a government document, the system aims to ‘put people first, broadly shape a thick atmosphere in the entire society that keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful, and ensure that sincerity and trustworthiness become conscious norms of action among all the people.’ The score given to each person will be a measure of their honesty and integrity and will determine whether they can access things such as air and train travel, the best schools, universities, hotels and hospitals, get a credit card, rent a flat or be considered for certain job roles.

At present, there is no one unified scoring system and it seems unlikely that one will be achieved by 2020. A number of pilot schemes are being trialed to assess how a nation-wide database could operate, meaning the current SCS landscape is very complex. Most are corporate-run systems or systems created by local governments and urban municipalities, and are not connected to the state proposed scheme – although the data collated by them may indeed be utilised in the future. Most are also opt-in, whereas the original state-proposed scheme is set to be mandatory.

Retail giant, Alibaba, has a system based on monitoring an individual’s shopping trendsOnline retail giant, Alibaba, has a system based on monitoring an individual’s shopping trends

Sesame Credit (also known as Zhima Credit) is an example of a well-known pilot scheme and was started by Ant Financial, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group, using an app to score people on their credit history and behaviour. Those who opt into the scheme, choosing to use ‘Alipay’ for commercial transactions, are given a rating based, among other factors, on the nature of purchases, shopping and donation patterns, social connections and credit history. Those with a score of 600 or above can be granted access to special services such as renting bikes, cars and houses without paying a deposit, obtaining a loan from Ant Financial, skipping queues for security screening at Beijing airport, and developing a more trustworthy profile on sites across the Alibaba e-commerce group. Users can even share and compare their scores on social media, while a link with the Baihe dating website encourages users to take into account the social credit figure of a prospective partner.

Rongcheng city in Shadong province is also piloting an SCS that researcher Lin Junyue told The Nation is ‘focusing on raising the moral standards of its inhabitants and provides many incentives.’ Each resident sets out with a score of 1,000 points and can face deductions or acquire points based on their activity. Points will be taken away if a parking ticket is received, but added for volunteering or assisting a fellow community member, for example. Personal scores, which are translated into grades ranging from A+++ to D, can be picked up from the local City Hall. Reportedly, those who have C-group scores face certain restrictions and experience regular visits from government officials, while those with D-group scores lose their creditworthiness and no longer qualify for management-level jobs.

At the end of each day, residents can even tune into a television channel that airs CCTV footage collated from surveillance cameras around the city. Reports have found that Rongcheng’s community seems to be largely in favour of the scheme, motivated by the rewards and pride that a high credit score can bring.

Rongcheng cityRongcheng city has an SCS that focuses on ‘raising citizens’ moral standards’

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What seems to have riled Western commentators, however, are the reported implications of having a low social credit score. Blacklisting horror stories have resulted in social credit systems being described as Orwellian-style schemes of control, having the potential to determine life chances and largely favouring those who are already financially and socially privileged. Lucy Peng, Sesame Credit’s chief executive, was quoted as saying that the system ‘will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.’ While reprimands of current schemes include limiting access to travel and financial services, there are concerns that this could extend to social services and education.

Previous research has mainly focused on SCS as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s wider strategy of social control and management, and its intention to create a self-regulatory society that can function as an organic whole, according to Genia Kostka, a professor of Chinese politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. She claims that mechanisms of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ reinforcement related to SCS intend to ‘create a citizenry that engages in automatic self-monitoring and adjustment of its behaviour in a manner reminiscent of Foucauldian governmentality’. If successful in its efforts, she claims, the Communist party will have developed a ‘powerful means of quelling dissent, one that is low-cost and which does not require the overt (and unpopular) use of coercion by the state.’

Chinese CCTVChinese CCTV is already widespread throughout the country

While Western commentators are quick to criticise the strategy and its roots in authoritarianism, some experts are calling for the recognition of the ways in which big data manipulation and subsequent behavioural coercion are not unique to China. In fact, similar surveillance strategies being carried out by private entities all over the world may have similar, although perhaps not as explicit, implications for personal privacy and autonomy.

Last year, ProPublica reported on the little-known operations of the US health insurance industry, highlighting its relationship with data brokers that share information on millions of citizens in order to help predict how much people’s health care could cost. According to the report, ‘without any public scrutiny, insurers and data brokers are predicting your health costs based on data about things such as race, marital status, how much TV you watch, whether you pay your bills on time or even buy plus-size clothing,’ all of which could have serious implications for raising rates.

Facebook has faced similar critique for its emotion tracking patent, socioeconomic classifier and ability to use facial recognition technology without the consent of the user. ‘Facebook’s ability to rank and categorise people into a variety of socioeconomic categories has possible impacts on individuals’ opportunities depending on their class, gender, race and sexual orientation. Whether it’s the type of job ads one is excluded from viewing, or the exclusion from certain housing ads,’ claims Abeba Bihrane, a cognitive science Ph.D. researcher at University College Dublin.

Uber is an example of a user-based social rating system active in the WestUber is an example of a user-based social rating system active in the West

Federico Caprotti, associate professor in human geography at the University of Exeter, also places coercion tactics in a Western context, explaining that ‘softer’ methods are inherently bound to subtle systems of control. He claims: ‘While in the Western media there has been, understandably, heavy critique of SCS as a mechanism of control, the other way to think of SCS is as a technological system that, because it can help “nudge” certain types of behaviour or behavioural changes, can actually help with achieving societal goals around environmental sustainability, personal health, etc. In the UK, we have had similar mechanisms proposed, such as the sugar tax, which aim to do much the same thing but through the free market. The Chinese system is different and is very individualised, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that trying to prod individual behaviour in certain directions isn’t something that only the Chinese government is doing.’

Others, however, hold a less accommodating view. ‘Often comparisons are drawn between [SCS and] private applications such as Uber and its rating system for customers and drivers. While these private company systems are extremely problematic in my view, they are fundamentally different. The People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian country, the Chinese Communist Party [has been] responsible for gross human rights violations for decades,’ Samantha Hoffman, a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Wired magazine earlier this year.

SCS nonetheless remains in the early stages of development and, contrary to popular belief, many Chinese citizens are largely unaware of its existence at this point. Whether it will restrict civil liberties and infringe on basic human rights as feared by the West, or reduce corruption and build a more transparent society as hoped for by advocates, remains to be seen.

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