The Social Credit System (Chinese: 社会信用体系; pinyin: shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì) is a national reputation system being developed by the Chinese government. The program initiated regional trials in 2009, before launching a national pilot with eight credit scoring firms in 2014. In 2018, these efforts were centralized under the People’s Bank of China with participation from the eight firms. By 2020, it is intended to standardize the assessment of citizens’ and businesses’ economic and social reputation, or ‘Social Credit’.
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 suggest the system utilizes numerical score as the reward and punishment mechanism; recently conducted reports suggest there are in fact multiple different forms of social credit system experimenting at the same time. 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 the Skynet, which incorporates facial recognition system, big data analysis technology and AI.
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, etc; on the other hand, behavior listed as positive factors of credit ratings includes donating blood, donating to charity, volunteering for community services, and so on.
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 have been denied to people who were deemed “untrustworthy (失信)” (on a blacklist), and 4.37 million “untrustworthy” people have 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. 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 service, Didi Chuxing and Baihe.com, respectively. In general, multiple firms are collaborating with the government to develop the system of software and algorithms used to calculate credit.
The Chinese central government originally considered that 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 is shared with the Chinese government. As of mid 2018, only pilot schemes have been tested.
Private companies have also signed contracts with provincial governments to set up the basic infrastructure for the Social Credit System at a provincial level. As of March 2017, 137 commercial credit reporting companies are 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, including judicial system (discredited blacklist system), 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 thirty-two thousand 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.
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 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
|Cities||Some of the local government policies|
|Beijing||· Starting May 15, 2019, inappropriate behavior in Beijing’s rapid transits, including playing loud music or eating (except infants and sick people), could result in a negative record in credit profiles.
· In January 2019, Beijing government officially announced that it will start to test “Personal Credit Score.”
· In November 2018, a detailed plan was produced for further implementation of the program for 2018–2020 in Beijing. The plans included black listing people from public transport and publicly disclosing individuals’ and businesses’ untrustworthiness rating.
· Starting 2018, in some places, personal information of traffic violators is publicly displayed on the screens at traffic crosses, and red-light violations may be recorded in credit profiles in the future.
|Shanghai||· In September 2019, Shanghai Police Department intended to establish a credit system for dog owners, which is linked to the owners’ overall credit profiles.
· Starting July 1, 2019, individuals and organizations who do not comply with the waste sorting rules of the city will receive a negative record in their credit profiles and will have to pay a corresponding amount of fine.
· Starting May 1, 2016, elderly residents may sue their children or other family members if the latter do not regularly visit the elderly, and the courts in Shanghai may rule that the children or other family members must visit the elderly and, if rejected, the children or relevant family members will be blacklisted.
|Guangzhou||· Starting August 1, 2019, residents who cheat in national, provincial or municipal examinations will receive a negative record in their credit profiles.
· Starting August 1, 2019, residents who fraudulently use other people’s public-transportation identification cards or fake ID cards, or occupy the seats of others, may receive a negative record in their credit profiles.
|Shenzhen||· Starting November 1, 2019, residents at least 14 years old who violate traffic rules such as jaywalking and violating the red light, once caught, will receive a negative record in their credit profiles. For residents under age of 14 who violate traffic rules, their legal guardians will need to take educational courses or complete certain social services, otherwise the traffic violation will be recorded in their credit profiles.
· Starting November 1, 2019, traffic violations of motor-vehicle or moped drivers, such as inappropriate use of high beam and drunk driving, may be recorded in the credit profiles of the drivers; if the driver receives traffic fine for 5 times or more in a year, or have 3 unresolved violations or more in a year, they will receive a negative record in their profiles.
· Starting 2018, in some places, personal information of traffic violators is publicly displayed on the screens at traffic crosses.
|Hangzhou||· Starting August 1, 2019, individuals and organizations who do not comply with the waste sorting rules of the city will receive a negative record in their credit profiles and will have to pay a corresponding amount of fine.|
|Nanjing||· Starting July 8, 2019, moped drivers and pedestrians who make 5 or more traffic violations (including red-light violation) in a year will receive a negative record in their credit profiles. In some places, personal information of traffic violators is publicly displayed on the screens at traffic crosses.
· Starting July 8, 2019, moped drivers who drive into the lanes of motor vehicles for 5 times or more in a year will receive a negative record in their credit profiles.
|Suzhou||· Starting 2016, twenty-five types of residents’ behavior will cost a drop in their credit scores, including cheating in online video games, making reservations at hotels or restaurants but not showing up, failing to pay cellphone bills promptly, failing to pick up take-out foods ordered, etc. On the other hand, making blood donations or doing volunteer work may boost one’s credit score.|
|Jinan||· On January 1, 2017, a credit system for dog owners became effective. Owners will lose 3 points if caught for the first time that their dogs are not kept on a leash in public places or disturb other people or the poops are not cleaned up in the public, etc; the owners will lose another 3 points if caught for the second time because of the same issues; the owners will lose all 12 points if caught for the third time and will not be allowed to keep any dog in the following 5 years; in addition, the owners will lose all 12 points immediately if their dogs are found not having registered with the government or not receiving annual review. Owners with 0 point will have their dogs taken away from them by the government; in order to have their dogs back, the owners must take (free) courses on relevant rules of the city and pass the exams.|
From the Chinese government’s 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 include: flight ban, exclusion from private schools, slow internet connection, exclusion from high prestige work, exclusion from hotels, and registration on a public blacklist.
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 have been denied to people whom were deemed “untrustworthy (失信)” (on a blacklist), and 4.37 million “untrustworthy” people have 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
If the parents of a child were to score below a certain threshold, their children would be excluded from the private schools in the region or even national universities.
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 – discuss] and reporting on Uighurs who publicly pray, fast during Ramadan, or perform other Islamic practices.
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.”
Mugshots of blacklisted individuals are sometimes displayed on large LED screens on buildings, or shown before the movie in movie theaters.
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, loans and visas.
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 argues that since 2014, China’s Social Credit System and the credit system of the market have 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, to which Fan claims 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 finds “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 explains in the paper that “[w]hile 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 states 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 put into doubt.
See also: Censorship in China and Mass surveillance in China
China’s Social Credit System has been implicated in a number of controversies, especially given that 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 authoritarianism. 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 “untrustworthy”. While still in the preliminary stages, the system has been used to ban people and their children from certain schools, prevent low scorers from renting hotels, using credit cards, and blacklist individuals from being able to procure employment. The system has also been used to rate individuals on their internet habits (excessive online gaming reduces one’s score), personal shopping habits, and a variety of other personal and wholly innocuous acts that have no impact on the wider community.
- 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 violate the “rule of law” or “Rechtsstaat”: they infringe the legal rights of residents and organizations, possibly violate the principle of respecting and protecting human rights, especially the right to reputation, the right to privacy as well as personal dignity, and overstep the boundary of reasonable punishment.
- In June 2019, Samantha Hoffman of Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues that “[t]here 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, Forbesnoted 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 Hillnoted 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 Watchdescribed the proposed social credit system was described as “chilling” and filled with arbitrary abuses.
- In December 2015, Vision Timeslabeled the system as a mass surveillance tool and mass disciplinary machine.
- In July 2019, Wiredreported that there existed misconceptions regarding the Social Credit System of China. It argues 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, Logicpublished 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 include but not limited to that surveillance data is connected with a centralized database; human activities online and offline are assigned with actual values that can be deducted, or every citizens in China have a numerical score that is calculated by computer algorithm.
- In March and February, 2019, MIT Technology Reviewstated 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 Policylisted 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.
- Rogier Creemers of Leiden University states that despite Chinese government has intentions of utilizing big data and artificial intelligence, the regulatory method of SCS remains relatively crude. His research concluded that “[P]erhaps 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 the early days of the Pinochet dictatorship, a Directory of Commercial Information (DICOM) has featured prominently in the economic life of the country. People who have poor DICOM scores find it harder to find housing, start new businesses, get 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 with poor scores, such as banning the usage of DICOM scores in determining access to medical attention.
In February 2018, Handelsblatt Global reported that Germany may be “sleep walking” towards a system comparable to China’s. Using data from the universal credit rating system, Schufa, geolocation and health records 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, etc. to filter job applications, determine access to social services, determine advertisements served, etc.
Some media outlets have compared the social credit system to rating 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 2018, Venezuela started developing a smart-card ID known as the “carnet de la patria”, or “fatherland card”, with the help of Chinese telecom company ZTE. The system also includes 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, similar to that of China’s social credit system.
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