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Is China’s Social Credit System a 'Black Mirror' Dystopian Scenario?

On 14 June 2014, the State Council of China issued the "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System," one of the most ambitious e-governing efforts in the country.

The social credit initiative, which is set to be completed in 2020, is a part of a reputation system established on a national scale that aims to rate the government, private companies, public sector entities, and citizens on trustworthiness using data mining. The Chinese government argues the social credit system is needed to bring forth a “sincerity culture” founded on traditional virtues and trust.

The word "credit" contains a broader meaning in Chinese: credit – xinyong (信用) in Chinese  – refers to a person's ability to maintain their promises and their trustworthiness. This nuance compared to its English definition implies that "credit" carries a moral judgment, and the Social Credit System should be understood within this context. 

The document devoted a whole chapter, “Circumstances and requirements,” to talk about the market economy and the rise of social contradictions, making clear from the beginning that the main actors that will be subjected to credit scoring are private enterprises and citizens. Nonetheless, the plan later details that the construction of a social credit system will impact all varieties of entities, along with an exhaustive list of aspects and actors that are going to be measured, quantified, and ranked.

It breaks down the four major groups that should be upholding sincerity: government affairs, commercial affairs, society, and judiciary. Each group is assigned different responsibilities and guiding agenda.

Specifically, the government is responsible for increasing transparency, fighting corruption, supervise the public; commercial players are expected to be transparent about their violations of regulations and laws; public organizations (society) are to be relied on for preventing fraud; the judicial actors are responsible for increasing credibility and transparency, and punishing corruption.

In regards to how the social credit system would apply on an individual scale, in 2015, the People Bank of China granted rights to eight private companies to develop pilot schemes for the system. One of the most popular pilots that emerged was Sesame Credit, a gamified credit-rating system developed by Alibaba's Ant Financial using data from Alipay wallet.

Sesame Credit quickly gained media attention, resulting in a plethora of dystopian narrative regarding the State's mass surveillance goals. A WIRED article reads: “The Chinese government plans to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. The aim? To judge the trustworthiness – or otherwise – of its 1.3 billion residents.”

However, the People Bank of China later decided to revoke licenses to the eight companies involved on the grounds that all eight companies had flaws in their plans: failing to protect user’s privacy, unnecessary over-collection of data, and conflicts of interest. 

Lumping Sesame Credit, or other pilot programs created by these private companies, with the government's Social Credit System is not a productive exercise either, as it risks missing the bigger picture. 

The Sesame Credit's app contained significant failings. A Quartz article in 2017 pointed out how the app was less about judging its users on the basis of trustworthiness, but rather their ability to use Alipay products.

Jeremy Daum, a research fellow at Yale Law School who has voiced concern about media coverage of the social credit system, noted: “The document reads like a guiding ideology and principle for the use of data and technology.” Indeed, it is too generic, broad, and vague to be considered as a plan for a concrete system.

Right now, it's still very unclear how the Chinese government would go about building the system, except for requiring that all phone numbers, internet connections, bank accounts, and many more, to be connected to a verified identification number. 

An often more neglected aspect that should be taken into consideration is how the social credit system will have an impact on corporations. Dr. Flora Sapio, a China law scholar, suggested: “What is really new in “Social Credit” is a systematic effort to monitor, quantify, measure, and rank corporate behavior.” This makes sense for a country like China amidst market economy and laissez-faire capitalism, which would require the government to have less interference in private businesses.

Thus, the credit system can be interpreted as the government's effort to use data to regulate companies. At best, it has the potential to help counter power imbalances existing in society; however, the possibility of the system being weaponized for mass surveillance remains a concern.  

Mass surveillance is already happening in Xinjiang, where facial recognition technology is being used to monitor citizens. This is not unique to China. The Conversation has pointed out that it is a product of the global rise of digital surveillance. We have seen many examples including the market research firm Acxiom or the story on how the Israel police keep tabs of terrorist scores and use it to arrest Palestinians.

[Illustration by Kevin Hong via WIRED]

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