HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change

Dec 13, 2019

“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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