HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change

“Social Credit”: China’s Automated Social Control and the Question of Choice

The social credit system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has attracted worldwide attention.

At a time when there is widespread suspicion and distrust of the PRC in the West and human rights in that country are of growing concern, this system is often interpreted in terms of state power, data-driven surveillance and unprecedented intrusion into personal lives with automated social control and computational propaganda.

Chinese people do not necessarily share these views, and how the system operates at the local level is not as insidious and totalitarian as the West imagines.

The PRC’s social credit system, announced in 2014, is a technocratic solution to socioeconomic governance and population management. It has been piloted in several dozen sites and reportedly will be implemented nationwide from 2020. It uses algorithms to allocate credit scores to individuals, business, government and non-government institutions and to encourage them to be more “trustworthy” through a mix of technological, administrative and legal measures.

Most often through gamified obedience instead of coercion, it nudges people to be good citizens by rewarding “civilised behaviour” and “positive energy”. Those on the “red list” enjoy such benefits as bond-free rental bike hire or low-interest loans. Those on the “black list” face restrictions on investment and air or train travel. Its carrots and sticks methods are part of a broader public opinion and social management regime that is socially acceptable to most people in the PRC.

Preliminary research has found that the population at large finds the system attractive because it promises to use quantifiable data and algorithms to build a society based on trust and trustworthiness. Another study shows that the “all carrots and no sticks” strategy, as implemented in Xiamen and Fuzhou in southeast China, is only being implemented gradually and is being refined through trials.

Life in the PRC goes on as usual, despite increasingly sophisticated technologies being tested and incorporated in the localised social credit system. The lack of public discussion of the system and its social implications may be a deliberate strategy of the State and its technology partners: to let the game run its course until compliance and obedience become the new norm. In fact, it has been under way for a number of years in many urban centres.

Many PRC urbanites and academics argue that the system is not dissimilar to credit rating systems operating internationally and feel irritated by outsiders’ simplified, digital dystopian narratives. They are also widely ambiguous about “being naked” in the digital era and unable to exit the system.

The question is more about choice than about habit. “Do you care about your privacy?” “Yes.” “Do you have the choice of noncompliance before the state or platform service providers?” “No.” Compulsory disclosure of personal information (including biometrics) and permission to service providers to access it have become part of the game of being digital. The choice of being a hermit is a bygone memory.

This does not mean that people are completely under totalitarian control. The following account may shed some light on what people think of the system. A story collected in Beijing in July 2019 highlights some key themes: techno-utilitarian experiments with digital technologies (powered by AI, machine learning, automation, IoT); the politics of data collection, processing and manipulation; the relationship between censorship/control and individual agency/resilience; and the flexibility of digital authoritarianism.

Imagine living in a residential compound in Beijing. You have a networked life via 5G connection on multiple devices and enjoy the convenience brought by technologies in Fintech, Healthtech, VR, etc. You sometimes scale the Great Fire Wall via VPN to access blocked websites, but most of the time you live in a digital ecosystem constructed by domestic digital giants and digital unicorns and startups. You know your digital footprints are constantly monitored and data collected as you surf the Web.

Life is still good. You enjoy digital convenience and efficiency. Sure, privacy concerns have increased, like the new optic fibre and security cameras throughout the compound. You know that your socially responsible behaviour online and offline earns you a high score in the social credit system even though you have no idea how the algorithms work. All you know is that you are a model citizen on the red list with privileges and fast-track promotion at work. You occasionally make critical comments on politics on Weibo and WeChat; sometimes your comments get censored but this has not (yet) affected your score. The system is designed “to allow the trustworthy (good people) to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited (bad people) to take a single step,” according to the key policy document of 2014. You, like the majority of Chinese urbanites, support the social credit system and the logic behind it.

One day you are informed that a new rule will make the main gate to your compound entrance only and another gate exit only. New security cameras with facial recognition technologies will enforce this rule. You are told that this is a directive from a higher authority. You and other residents are strongly against this as it would take you much longer to get in and out of the compound. After failed negotiations with the compound management, you and your neighbours discuss things in your neighbourhood WeChat group and start a guerrilla petition through anonymous phone calls to the local government. One week later, the compound security manager meets residents and agrees that the one-way sign will be kept in place but the security cameras will be turned off so that residents can enter and exit via the main gate as before. Everybody is happy, for now at least, but is aware that the deal may be revoked. And you are prepared for the next fight.

This story highlights the people’s agency and its limits in the face of a computational behaviour and social engineering project. It also reveals how many myths there are outside China about the social credit system: which is a multi-stage, multi-stakeholder evolving project with uneven implementation and local variations. Furthermore, it shows the dynamics between the State and society, as a flexible and responsive authoritarian approach can be adapted by local authorities in response to grassroots discontent.

Legal scholar Xin Dai points out that the social credit system can be seen through a number of lenses, including developmental interests, bureaucratic interests, private business interests, and authoritarian interests. The social interests of individuals, families and communities are also one such lense. This calls for a human-centred approach in discussing technology and social control or management, and should be balanced against Western concerns about the essential human right to privacy, which is another issue altogether.

Associate Professor Haiqing Yu is a Vice Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. She researches the sociological and economic impact of China’s digital media, communication and culture on China, Australia and the Asia Pacific.

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7 Responses to HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change

  1. Jenni Martin says:

    No comment on the brutalisation of minority Chinese? They are not being rewarded. In my experience, Han Chinese are more likely to succeed in China than any other group.

  2. KAYTHEGARDENER says:

    Ifyou get points/ demerits based upon your behavior, it is only a quick step to record your monetary assets in such a way. Then there would be little need for cash/currency & the money could disappear without your knowledge or control. Then you are literally a slave owned by the State.

  3. Sam Lee says:

    This article has that wonderful feel of being Lost in Translation. I remember watching the film and being completely underwhelmed while people without an East Asian heritage were singing its praises. I was on the other side of the equation years later when I was caught up in the worldwide (some would say “engineered”) phenomenon of Gangnam Style, to which my first-generation Korean-Australian friend responded with an emphatically pleasant meh.

    For those who are reading this excellent series for the exposure to all things Chinese that is sorely missing in Australian media, I suggest reading this article as an informative example of how all things Chinese are trans-ferred/lated without that polishing layer of ‘Anglospeak’ (I hope I am not misappropriating this from some established meaning).

    For those who wish to engage in the content of the article I believe the key to translating this article is to take a step back and recognise a lot of the differences are manufactured out of tribalism plus some good old-fashioned ignorance. X with Chinese characteristics is about as Chinese as bai-zuo (“white left”) is white and lefty. Or the immorality and individualism that is civilisation with Western characteristics (that is, it isn’t) ….

    …. in more concrete terms, this article reads like a dystopian fantasy and I don’t believe the author realises that is how she reads to an Anglospeak reader. I would be very interested in reading what she writes in Chinese on the same topic to decide for myself if she really believes in the technocratic Orweillian society she is defending here. Or is there a third reading here where the author needs to write positively on a sensitive and distasteful topic which, if this were true, she has done a wonderful job of both defending the dystopian system and simultaneously escalating our fear and loathing for it…

    … Of course, if one were to talk about Australians and our metadata retention, our acceptance and support for the mandatory collection of our private data for convenient access to the internet, email, maps, medical records, getting through customs quicker, cheaper public services etc, one would also be defending the dystopian system that we live in and support in Australia. Social credit system with Australian characteristics is acceptable to us and strongly supported (to such an extent it is used to justify upending democracy and the rule of law to, supposedly, defend it).

    The PRC is at a greater risk than Australia from this technocratic revolution though. If you staff your movers and shakers with people who believe in zeroes and ones, and everything only ever being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ without allowing for the “maybes” you will end up with a Fajia (Legalism) system that rejects humanity, as opposed to the concepts of Ren (and Li and Yi) of Confucianism. PRC nationals may not be as well versed in their history as Chinese outside the PRC so maybe it is time for them to revisit their history lessons (much touted as the 5000-year-reason for the longevity of the Chinese civilisation) – the argument and the fight has already been fought two thousand years ago, there is nothing new under the sun, time to build on the efforts of one’s ancestors and carry on. I believe the PRC is practical enough and agile enough to recognise this defect in their political system, just as they recognise their social credit system can be either dystopian or be responsive to ‘grassroots discontent’. Time will tell.

    (as a side point, when the social credit system was introduced my first reaction was this was in response to ‘grassroots discontent’ around the world about Chinese tourists and Chinese behaviour in China that are embarrassing the CCP eg, spitting, toileting infants in public bins, defacing landmarks, destroying artworks etc, and I still believe that is the aim, although as usual, when such a convenient tool is available, once its original purpose has been served, there is a tendency to slip and slope down into unreasonable uses)

  4. It could be argued that Chinese culture, including political culture, allows this model of surveillance to be bedded down more easily; for instance, people in the PRC have long been used to the dang’an (personal file system) that moderates their behaviour and social advancement. The social credit system is arguably a digital extension of this. It’s harder to build this form of social governance in the west, although we are monitored by our data footprints by big-tech ; a paper I co-wrote might be of interest. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1329878X19876362

  5. Kien Choong says:

    Thank you, very interesting.

    Whereas at one extreme, libertarians have lexicographic preferences for procedural rights (“liberties”), and at the other extreme, consequentialists look only at outcomes and ignore procedural rights, a harmonious and just society needs to take a comprehensive perspective, valuing both outcomes and procedural rights.

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    “. . . the “all carrots and no sticks” strategy, as implemented in Xiamen and Fuzhou in southeast China, is only being implemented gradually and is being refined through trials.”

    Is this meant to be reassuring?

  7. Teow Loon Ti says:

    Ms/Mdm,

    I find surveying of people apart from the prevention of criminal activities horrifying. Much depends on how the so called “good behaviour” is defined. In any case, it runs against the laws of nature. We need diversity to ensure our survival according to Darwinian principles. A desirable “norm” today might be a scourge tomorrow. If there were no conscientious objectors, slavery will still be in existance today; women will not have the vote; the Reformation would not have occurred in Europe; and the Enlightenment would not have happened.

    Social engineering is a most horrifying undertaking. We are all flawed individuals and it is unlikely that we can engineer people to become perfect social beings without committing social injustices. What is flawed today might became a saving factor tomorrow if Charles Darwin’s theory is to be believed. The Nazis considered Jews socially undersirable. Without Jews, would there be an Einstein? One of the most obvious factors that ensures our survival as humans is our creativity which is hugely dependent on being different, and arguable, on being rebellious. How else do we get a Picasso, a Caravaggio or a Gallileo? A level of harmony is necessary to achieve progress but the quest for harmony can be taken to extremes.

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