Feature. By 2020, Beijing means to perfect its new ‘social credit’ system, which is meant to create a more ‘harmonious’ and ‘virtuous’ society. Critics compare it to a techno-dystopia, in which the Communist Party leverages Big Data for control.

Is the Chinese ‘social credit’ system really such a bad thing?

Guizhou, one of the poorest regions in China, has become a sort of high-tech outpost, betting big on Big Data. As Li Jing, a sociology professor at Zhejiang University, has pointed out in an article for the website Sixth Tone, the region “is home to the fastest-growing digital economy sector in the nation, which grew by 37 percent in 2017—compared to the national average of 20.3 percent.”

In the high-tech zone of Guiyang, the regional capital, the first half of 2018 witnessed the registration of “16,000 tech companies, 155 research institutes and 49 tech incubators”; the area has attracted “85,000 professionals from around the country,” and just in the year 2017, 37 startups dealing with data and algorithms became newly listed on the stock market. This represents the explosive arrival of what some describe as the “post-internet” era, which has already become everyday life in China.

According to the Financial Times, Big Data “will reshape China’s approach to governance.” According to some analysts, this will give immense power to the Communist Party. But according to others, like Yasheng Huang, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, this could instead lead to “a new wave of personal freedoms.” All these reflections end up focusing on the “social credit” system that Beijing has been planning for a long time, and which should be formalized in a national plan in 2020.

Imagine living in a city where citizens have a “social score,” and that each of the inhabitants of this city starts out with a score of 1,000 points, recognized by the authorities.

Imagine that these initial points can be lost little by little due to violations of specific legal, administrative and moral rules. For example, one of the security cameras—feeding a system based on artificial intelligence and Big Data—takes your picture while you’re committing a traffic violation and links it back to you: you lose 50 points. You have one more child than the state-elaborated family planning norms: you lose 35 points. You can’t pay back the loan you took out from the bank: you lose another 50 points.

Imagine also that lost points can be recovered through “virtuous” behavior, perhaps by participating in an event organized by the single party that leads the country, or by posting on social media praising a campaign by the city government. Imagine that on the basis of their score, citizens would be classified into different “levels” from A to D, and, depending on their position in the rankings, would be considered more or less virtuous, and accordingly liable to get more or less favorable treatment in accessing even basic services.

Whether we like it or not, this “social credit” system already exists in China. According to Rogier Creemers, a professor at the University of Leiden, in his paper “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control,” in 2010 the city of Suining introduced a “mass credit” system (dazhong xinyong), a program through which the individual conduct of the city’s inhabitants would be measured and evaluated. Obviously, the Chinese Communist Party decides the criteria, the changes in category, the possible inclusion on a blacklist and the consequent sanctions.

This is one of the pilot projects for the more general Chinese “social credit system,” aimed at creating a national ranking of all citizens, whose data—financial, criminal and even “social”—is to be stored and processed by sophisticated algorithms. This “score” can determine one’s ability to access some services to a greater or lesser extent, or more or less quickly, such as loans, financial subsidies, health services, but also airline tickets, or even the possibility to leave the country. All this, of course, is to be overseen by the Chinese Communist Party.

This is a process through which data management—made easy by a series of characteristics specific to China, not least the fact that the state possesses all of its citizens’ data—is said to be able to create a truly “harmonious” and “virtuous” society, all according to the dictates of the CCP, in which “trust” would become the linchpin of the social life of a whole country.

All this is already underway, and it has been made possible thanks to a real technological revolution taking place in China in connection with Big Data. It is no coincidence, Creemers notes, that the term in Mandarin meaning “credit,” xinyong, “carries a wider meaning than its English-language counterpart. It not only includes notions of financial ability to service debt, but is cognate with terms for sincerity, honesty and integrity.”

Let us start at the very beginning: why is China focusing on the social credit system, and why is this process often described as dystopian or associated with a new manifestation of Big Brother in our times? Notwithstanding these interpretations, there are some cultural and political questions that can allow us to better understand how the “social credit system” fits in the Chinese context.

The “new era” of Xi Jinping differs from the “thought” and “theories” of his predecessors regarding the international posture to be taken by the country, but otherwise fits perfectly into a historical continuum that goes all the way from Confucius to today’s Communist Party. The dream (specific to China) of a harmonious society guided by moral values ​​and virtue, and at the same time ruled in a top-down manner by the Chinese Communist Party, is what has tied Communist leaders ever since Deng Xiaoping to the great Confucian tradition of Imperial China.

Thus, if the country’s development has allowed for easier data management compared to other states, certain ideals that have run through its whole history might be put into practice. As Creemers recalls, “The first high-level political mention of the social credit system came in the Political Report that the outgoing Secretary General Jiang Zemin delivered at the 16th Party Congress in 2002.”

Then, in 2014, the CPC outlined the guidelines and experiments to be undertaken with a target date around 2020. Some in the international media have analyzed this system only superficially, focusing on its potential totalitarian effects, particularly as regards the “scores” of individual citizens—but without locating it within the more general framework of the history and culture of the country. While, for now, this system has had as its main purpose that of ensuring financial transparency by companies—very similar in this respect to the American “FICO” (Fair Isaac Corporation) credit score system introduced in 1989—there is an undeniable risk that this could become yet another of the many control systems of the gigantic Chinese state apparatus.

However, in this regard it is important to recall that some experiments that seemed to go too far in pursuit of the goal of creating a virtuous society—such as the monitoring of “social behavior”—have been criticized by both citizens and the government media, and have ended up being abandoned. Taking this into account, one of the most interesting analyses of the impact of Big Data on Chinese society has been that undertaken by Prof. Yasheng Huang. In an article published in August in the MIT Technology Review with the title “China’s use of big data might actually make it less Big Brother-ish,” Professor Huang argues for a much less apocalyptic view than that of many other international observers.

Recalling how in the more recent history of the country “privacy […] was equated with preserving a dirty secret,” Huang believes that “as social interactions have evolved in China, so have Chinese values.”

The rise of Big Data technology, Huang argues, has contributed to a much more acute awareness of privacy compared to that arising from other Chinese socio-economic developments of crucial importance, such as GDP growth, globalization and urbanization. According to Huang, in practice, the post-internet era “has decisively broken the personal intimacy of Confucian culture.”

“On WeChat,” the professor writes, “you can friend thousands of people you barely know. On Alibaba, you can do business with people you wouldn’t recognize if they knocked on your door.” Thus, the digital economy breaks “the old Confucian social contract.” As a result, Huang hopes, Big Data could in fact nurture a positive notion of privacy among the Chinese, instead of smothering it altogether under the control of the Communist Party.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!