What do you think about China 's Social Credit System?
I think that the directives published by Beijing and their local implementations are much less exciting than what Western journalists have been writing about.
Beijing is coming up with new bureaucratic solutions to regulate its territory (credit, trust, pollution, etc) but the coverage on the issue has somehow taken a dramatic tone, which is more symptomatic of Western societies than China really.
China is building the first major legal system in the digital age. Some legal concepts are imported (credit score) but the tools are mostly new. As it is unknown and foreign, Western commentators project all their fears and fantasies on it, but really it is not that exciting when you take the time to look into the details.
There are some good answers already about the “credit” aspect of the social score. The main thing is that Chinese have traditionally access to credit though their family and social networks. Banking and social network have merged with digital apps, giving raise to a P2P lending sector that needed to be regulated. The government used the apps to enforce insurances and deliveries of credit and make sure people were solvable by looking at their credit history - see Credit score - Wikipedia for more info.
Another policy often cited are the “blacklists” that can prevent you to buy train tickets. The process of being blacklisted is equivalent to be a suspect in a police investigation. Effectively, when you are under police investigation in the US or Europe, you are forbidden to leave the city or the country and will be stopped at airports if you try to do so. This is the same but with trains because IDs are required to buy train tickets in China.
There is another myth that people will be assigned a unique “ranking”. To my knowledge, that does not appear in any of the existing Chinese legislation. Plus, it will be something absolutely useless.
Let me take an example I got from a recent China Law Translate podcast. In China you have a system to show hygiene quality in every restaurant. It looks like this :
Let’s say I am looking for a restaurant. I will check Trip Advisor (Dianping in China) for the food, and that sign for the hygiene. I don’t really care if the waiters are in debt or if the owner is good at accounting. I want good and clean food. More information given to me will just add more noise and make it harder to pick up a restaurant.
The same apply for this unique “social ranking” myth. Anyone who has been through stats or data analysis 101 knows that you don’t get any interesting indicators by dividing apples by oranges.
You want to do business with someone? You will check first its Linkedin profile, endorsements and recommandations. In China, the first goal of having a public ledger (public social scoring) is to shame factories that rely on poor labor conditions or/and highly polluting manufacturing processes. Beijing wants those guys out, and quick. This is the administrative framework that helps to identify companies requiring investigation and punishment for bad practices. In the US or France, you will fill a form and send it to an office somewhere. In China, they crunch the data they obtain from the major companies and the administrations.
The examples that were picked by Wired and other Western media are mostly around the implementation of the “Sesame credit” by Alibaba. Honestly, this is just a toy application that turns out completely useless if you really try to use it. Keep in mind that Chinese people are masters at gaming rankings. These journalists have no clue how cheap it is to increase your sesame score.
Nobody in China trusts these apps or these scores - including the government. These scores act first as a general survey for (mostly aggregate) economical measurement of debt level and second as a warning for the population. The goal is not single out individuals but to reduce systemic risk by relying on social pressure. The process is gamified to get users more involved, but this is a very poor implementation in my opinion. Not everything should be gamified, especially trust matters.
Here is a study by a German researcher that shows that - how strange - Chinese people are not opposed to the idea of social scoring. The survey seems to have been conducted very seriously and the findings are interesting.
Why will Chinese people view this “social credit system” in a positive light? For sure, it is because they are brainwashed or because they can not voice their opinion because, you know, they have no freedom … Well, it turns out that the world is more complicated than that.
Until very recently China had no legal system. Compared to centuries of jurisprudence in US or Europe, laws in China are very recent. What we are witnessing is the buildup of a legal and administrative system in the digital age. Yes, China uses apps and data instead of lawyers and paperwork. So what?
After decades of selling “digital technologies” as the new freedom, now Western media are all screaming that they are evil (fake news!). The truth is, they are just tools. The real question is: which laws and political agenda are going to be enforced by these tools? As a reminder, I will say that paper administration has worked very well in the last centuries to build strong and powerful countries AND to organise the killing of millions of people.
To answer the original question, I think China’s “social credit system” is quite a boring administrative topic about the making of new and enforceable laws in the context of a society developing in the digital age.
Yes, the social contract in China is different. The government builds infrastructure, takes the data and uses it to run the country. This has always be clear and stated in Chinese law. The real question is not about digital technologies, it is about justice. An administrative system will be used to enforce both just and unjust decisions. Most of the articles published about “credit score” does not discuss the question of justice. They just focus on “surveillance” in China without even bothering about the reality of the topic.
Once again, the Western debates are using China as a proxy to avoid looking at the ugly face in the mirror. China is trying some very debatable things. Then, as long as we don’t even bother to look at what is actually happening and just keep debating in our old terms, there will be no way for us to figure out a future out of the totalitarian fantasy that is currently gaining momentum.
This text was originally published in quora.