Chinese Citizens Want the Government to Rank Them

The government thinks "social credit" will fix the country's lack of trust — and the public agrees.

A live image shows Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivering his report at the National People's Congress opening ceremony is seen on a laptop in a restaurant in Beijing Railway Station on March 5, 2017.
China's rubber-stamp congress opened on March 5, 2017 in an annual pageant of Communist-controlled democracy. / AFP PHOTO / STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A live image shows Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivering his report at the National People's Congress opening ceremony is seen on a laptop in a restaurant in Beijing Railway Station on March 5, 2017. China's rubber-stamp congress opened on March 5, 2017 in an annual pageant of Communist-controlled democracy. / AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In October 2010, my grandmother, Tang Rirui, a 76-year-old retired headmistress living alone in Shenzhen, received a call from the “criminal investigations team of the public security bureau.” Her bank account had been linked with criminal activity, the man on the phone said, and they were investigating whether or not charges should be brought against her. Tang, a lifetime believer in and member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was shocked to hear such allegations.

The man passed her on to his superior, who was more sympathetic to her contrition. It was likely that criminals had taken control of her bank account for the purposes of fraudulent activity, he said, making her the victim of a crime. In order to keep her money safe, she should transfer her funds immediately to a protected government account. Eager to demonstrate her compliance with the authorities, she transferred 100,000 yuan (approximately $14,500) — around three years’ worth of her pension – to the designated account. She never saw her money or heard from the men again. She called the police, but was told the money was too small to be worth their time.

It would be one thing if this was an exceptional event. But Tang’s case is far from unique, even within my own family. My aunt, Chen Xiaoyue, a retired illustrator living in Changsha, Hunan, almost fell victim to a classic advance fee scam last year, when she received a letter congratulating her on a “1 million yuan” win. She knew better only because she’d been stung five years previously by an acquaintance who borrowed money for business, only to spend it all on gambling.

To be Chinese today is to live in a society of distrust, where every opportunity is a potential con and every act of generosity a risk of exploitation. When old people fall on the street, it’s common that no one offers to help them up, afraid that they might be accused of pushing them in the first place and sued. The problem has grown steadily since the start of the country’s economic boom in the 1980s. But only recently has the deficit of social trust started to threaten not just individual lives, but the country’s economy and system of politics as a whole. The less people trust each other, the more the social pact that the government has with its citizens — of social stability and harmony in exchange for a lack of political rights — disintegrates.

All of which explains why Chinese state media has recently started to acknowledge the phenomenon — and why the government has started searching for solutions. But rather than promoting the organic return of traditional morality to reduce the gulf of distrust, the Chinese government has preferred to invest its energy in technological fixes. It’s now rolling out systems of data-driven “social credit” that will purportedly address the problem by tracking “good” and “bad” behavior, with rewards and punishments meted out accordingly. In the West, plans of this sort have tended to spark fears about the reach of the surveillance state. Yet in China, it’s being welcomed by a public fed up of not knowing who to trust.

Chinese tech enterprises have already offered a trial run for such solutions. Take China’s booming bike-sharing industry, which has become a highly visible metaphor for China’s uncivil society. Of course, such businesses, which use GPS to allow users to pick up and leave the bikes anywhere in a given city, depend on trust: trust that users won’t park bikes in places that cause disturbances; trust that users won’t steal the bikes for themselves, whether by repainting them or by dismantling them and selling the parts; trust that users won’t replace the QR codes used to track and unlock bikes with codes that transfer money to their own bank accounts. And, unsurprisingly, such trust is broken on a daily basis in China. One company called Mobike has tried to encourage more courteous behavior among its customers by awarding each user a starting credit score of 100 points — this number goes down if you park your bike somewhere disruptive and goes up if you report abuse of the system. If your score drops below 80, the price you are charged for renting a bike goes up. If your score remains high, you are rewarded with free rides.

Other Chinese tech firms have introduced more ambitious versions of the same thing. Logistics giant Alibaba has created a social ranking system called Sesame Credit that integrates information about all 400 million of its users (unless they opt out). Alibaba intends Sesame Credit to offer a holistic rating of character, relying on an algorithm that explicitly down-rates certain purchases, such as video games, and up-rates purchasing behavior that suggests responsibility, such as parenting equipment. Alibaba then encourages users to display their Sesame Credit rating on Baihe, the company’s online dating site, so that potential partners can factor it in to their romantic decisions.

Such ratings aren’t unique to China; from eBay’s seller ratings to Uber’s passenger and driver ratings, firms worldwide have been encouraging consumers to rank themselves and others. But only in China has the government decided it wants in on the game. In 2014, the Chinese government announced it is rolling out its own “social credit” system that rates people on their financial and social behavior. The score will then be used to determine their access to certain privileges, such as permission to travel abroad or book first-class tickets. Eventually, these privileges could include things like access to top schools and renting cars — in other words, any luxury that might otherwise be bought with money alone. By 2020, the government says that social credit will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Advocates for the system point to the example of Western credit ratings, which are run by private firms and take social as well as financial data into account. Financial credit ratings are barely developed in China, which makes it hard for many ordinary people and small businesses to borrow money. The central bank has been lagging in developing its own financial credit rating system, which is widely recognized as being needed in a growing and increasingly complex economy. 

But the “social credit rating” goes way beyond the standard credit ratings to which Westerners are accustomed. The scope of the information that will determine a person’s social credit rating is huge: As well as financial history and criminal records, the government — via Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent, legally and politically obliged to be totally open to the government — has access to troves of online data about its citizens that Western governments do not. For example, billions of people in China pay via WeChat or Alipay, so information about what kinds of products you are buying — innocuous groceries or vice-laden alcohol, for example — could be used to inform a person’s credit score.

“The line between private companies and state institutions is often quite blurred,” says Maya Wang, a researcher from Human Rights Watch, adding, “In theory, there are protections on citizens’ data, but in practice there are no controls about how this data may be used.”

To Westerners, this immediately calls up worries about government surveillance, especially in an already authoritarian state like China. But many Chinese welcome the system seeing it as a potential remedy for the crisis in social trust in China, or even just a convenient means of navigating daily life. For many Chinese it is a welcome step toward holding the powerful accountable, since it’s not just individuals who will be affected. Companies will also be subject to greater scrutiny and retribution for uncivil behaviour, as will local governments, all of which will be assigned ratings on the basis of data available online. This would mark an enormous shift for China, where the opening up of the economy in the 1990s was not matched by an increase in consumer agency, especially as most industries were still controlled by the state and therefore only answerable to the CCP. Until the 2010s, government phone numbers were kept secret in order to avoid angry calls from the public.

It’s unsurprising that a system that promises to place a check on unfiltered power has proven popular — although it’s equally unsurprising that Chinese policymakers have not encouraged a free and open debate. Voices opposed to the policy have been rapidly removed from the internet.

Jennifer Hsu, assistant professor at the University of Alberta whose research focuses on Chinese civil society, believes “there is the potential for the party-state to build social and political trust” with social credit. Experiments at a local level have had mixed results. A 2010 pilot in Jiangsu province was abandoned after complaints from the local community. But in November last year, the Shanghai provincial government introduced a voluntary (for now) app called Honest Shanghai. It uses troves of data linked to one’s national ID number (thus drawing upon data from both private entities and government agencies) to determine a “public credit” score that can earn the citizen privileges like being able to book a hotel without a deposit.

The government is already moving towards a platform whereby different industries all submit their customers’ and employees’ data for central management. A 2014 State Council notice outlined plans to “Establish industry credit information databases” and to “accelerate the construction of credit information systems, and accelerate the interconnection and interactivity of credit information between sectors.” In April this year, 10 of China’s bike-sharing companies signed an agreement with the government’s economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, to share users’ data for the social credit system.

But the system is dangerously, and probably deliberately, prone to abuse. One unique part is the notion that negative behavior in one part of your life affects your life in other areas. Fail to pay a parking fine and you might not be allowed to book a train. Become embroiled in a food safety scandal and your children could be banned from certain schools. The government has issued public blacklist of 6.73 million people who have defied court orders, normally about loan repayments, and are barred from buying air tickets.

Wang, of Human Rights Watch, believes that the social credit plans are a case of the government using lack of social trust as “an excuse to implement surveillance and control.” “If the government gets this right, it’s a form of surveillance that could be total,” she says, calling the policy “a very worrying development.” The plans are certainly comprehensive: Everything from purchasing patterns to search engine histories could be used to decide whether a person is the “trust-breaking” or “trust-keeping” sort.

If carried out, such plans would in many ways be a modernization of traditional surveillance practices. The principle behind the surveillance promised is not anything new. A relic from the early years of the Communist revolution that is still used today is the dang’an, a personal file that tracks a citizen’s information from their high school grades, to their behavior at university, to their perceived political sympathies in adult life. The file, which the subjects are not allowed to see, can affect a person’s career prospects and pension entitlements. The Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser describes the dang’an as “an invisible monster stalking you.”

Other surveillance policies are more paternalistic. Senior citizens in China are given a special identification card that entitles them to certain privileges such as free bus travel. These cards are tracked, so that if a person deviates from their normal bus route for more than a few days, a local official will often come and check on them.

But social credit has the potential of amplifying surveillance to new heights. Dissidents could now be blacklisted on a national scale. It may also eliminate one of the only forms of recourse that Chinese have had to seek redress for an official injustice.

Traditionally, ordinary Chinese could “petition” the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing to consider complaints against local officials — including corruption or even assault or rape — or instances of workplace discrimination, medical negligence, and other grievances which the complainants feel had been unjustly ignored and required the central government’s attention. The chances of success in any of these cases is tiny, but for many it is their only hope, and as such local officials will go to huge lengths to stop their citizens from getting to Beijing, including violence, intimidation, and house arrests. That used to mean stationing policemen at train stations to watch for known “troublemakers” and kidnapping petitioners to hold them in “black jails” in Beijing until they recanted. With the social credit system, however, local officials can simply mark troublemakers as “trust-breakers,” and prevent them from buying plane or train tickets — for which ID now has to be shown even when purchasing at the station in cash.

It’s not just in China that a citizen’s personal data is used in ways beyond his or her control. Most users of Facebook, Google, and other internet services are aware that their information and preferences are sold to advertisers and can occasionally be accessed by the government. As Jeremy Daum of the China Law Translate blog argues, this kind of data is available everywhere; how governments choose to use it reflects their ideological aims, be that profit for private companies in the West, or social stability in China.

Yet the social credit system is ultimately a solution to a problem the party itself has created. Official critics are eager to blame capitalist “materialism” for the lack of trust, but such an argument is too simplistic. For decades, the CCP has seen as a direct threat any institutions that could offer a sense of community and identity not controlled by the party, such as religion, nongovernmental organizations, independent media, and, of course, rival political parties. In other words, they’ve annihilated the structures that allow people to form connections with any entity outside their own friends and family — and that could act as watchdogs.

Both the social credit system and the recent anti-corruption campaigns are generally popular, in part because there’s no alternative. The citizen watchdog groups or independent media which would serve the same purpose and help uncover corruption have been crushed. If the party wants to build a greater sense of civil society, it could improve transparency and accountability at all levels of government, and allow the existence of independent arbiters. Instead, it’s ensuring that the only monitor will, once and forever, be itself.

Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Amy Hawkins is a journalist for the Economist.

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