Social Credit Score in China: Hopeful or Horrible?

Figure 1: A brief explanation of the social credit system. Cc: visualcapitalist

Introduction

In 2014, China first announced its plan for an integrated social credit system. Unlike finance credit systems commonly seen in developed countries, China aims to integrate multiple aspects in its social credit system that is ‘aimed to regulate people’s behavior’ as part of the ‘data-driven efficient ruling’ plan by president Xi.⁶ According to Xinhua News, up to June 2019, more than 26 million people have been banned from purchasing airplane tickets due to discredit.¹

Background

The social credit system aims to include credit scoring of multiple sources, including political, commercial, social, and judicial.

Political honesty credit system:

Just as its name indicates, the political honesty credit system mainly applies to government employees, scoring them based on their behavior in their position.

Commercial honesty credit system:

The commercial honesty system gathers data from financial records, including credit card information, online shopping records, etc. The data collection is made possible by government partnerships with multiple entities, like Taobao, the most popular Chinese online shopping website, and banks.

Social honesty credit system:

The social honest credit system includes multiple aspects, and this is actually the part that is discussed most. Examples of actions affecting its score include blood donation, being kind to elders, obeying traffic rules, spreading rumors, etc. This actually falls more into the aspect of following Chinese traditional values and seems more ethical than judicial.

Judicial honesty credit system:

The judicial honest credit system is also straightforward. Examples include committing crimes or showing bad manners in court.

Scholar responses:

In recent scholarly articles, researchers describe the approach as “an ambitious approach to an evolved data-driven control”² ³ ⁴. In terms of governing, most of the author seems to agree that the system is at least a progressive approach. And it remains a question is such an approach is a model for other countries.

In terms of ethical views of professionals, the situation becomes rather two-sided: Most western scholars abhor this new system as an unforgivable invasion of people’s privacy² ³, whereas Chinese scholars state the necessity to ‘trade’ some privacy to gain certainty, safety, and order.⁴

Voices from the people

The Chinese social credit system has been given an unequivocally negative reception by the media in the west. While such reactions are understandable, we should also hear from the actual Chinese people. After all, it’s them that are actually affected by the system, and are most qualified to express their opinions about it.

In general, according to the study by Xinyuan Wang, most of the Chinese people did not oppose it, instead, they seem to welcome it. (And trust me, it’s not because those who oppose it will be locked up.)⁵

In the study, Wang spoke to around 500 people face-to-face.

“Contrary to what many people in the west believe, in private and during informal talks among friends, ordinary Chinese are not shy or concerned about expressing their opinions about politics.” She reported.

And people have their reasons to ‘trade’ their privacy. And the main reason, Wang found out, was for the sake of avoiding fraud.⁵

In recent years, China has experienced a rising number of fraud cases and scams, as well as major scandals in the food safety and pharmaceutical industries. There is a widely held consensus that the punishment for these offenses is not enough to deter re-offending, with people committing crimes in one province and setting up a business in another the next day with few consequences. Some believe the social credit system will remedy this through the blacklisting system. And as fear for such uncertainty increases among citizens, most of them seem willing to give up their privacy for security.⁵

Mr. Zhu is one such example interviewed by Wang. He is well aware of the danger of such frauds to ordinary people and such fear becomes even more significant as he was starting to teach his 80-year-old mother to use smartphones since elders are ‘easy targets’ of phone frauds. And his experience echoes with many others.⁵

Ethical analysis:

The problems around China’s social credit system are typical trade-off situations: the citizens are trading their privacy in exchange for protection and certainty. Where if such a decision is good or bad depends on the view of different parties.

Speaking of parties, there are mainly 2 groups at stake on this problem: the Chinese people, and the government, especially law-enforcement agencies. For the government, the analysis is simple: with the system online or not, the government is hardly losing anything. Thus, we will focus more on the people below.

Due to the nature of this problem, certain approaches of ethical analysis may not be approachable. In specific, the Utilitarian approach, and the common good approach, can both be controversial at this case, because different people may have different weights for privacy and safety in their heart, and we do not know if the system will do good or bad overall because it is the first of its kind.

In terms of protecting the right of people, not enforcing the system is more likely the better one. Although the social credit system promises a safer society, it is definitely harming people’s rights to privacy, while the safety of people can be raised by other methods as well.

In terms of fairness or justice, one might favor the social credit system more, since it does provide a better platform for law enforcement, and it is equally applied to all citizens. However, that is the case only if we trust the ‘machine’ or the ‘algorithm’ for the credit score is absolutely, or at least most of the time, fair and just.

In terms of the virtue aspect, the social credit system does seem appealing. As mentioned above, the ‘social honesty credit system’ focuses on areas that fit more into the category of Chinese traditional ethics or virtues. By writing them down as laws, the system would foreseeably guarantee a society more towards Chinese traditional ethics.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, it seems a good idea to at least test to see if the social credit system would work up to the expectation. Although there are various ethical risks in the process, the promise the system shows makes it worth it to at least experiment. Also, whether it’s about justice, right, or virtue, who is better to say than the Chinese people themselves? It has been more than 5 years since the system was implemented, and there have been no reports of obvious repulses among the people, nor cases where the algorithm fails to do its job.⁶ I would recommend parties to give the social credit system a try, while continue to closely monitor the execution of the system wary of ethical harms.

References:

  1. 2682万人次因失信被限制乘机-新华网. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from http://www.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2019-07/17/c_1124761947.htm

2. Chorzempa, M., Triolo, P., & Sacks, S. (2018). China’s Social Credit System: A Mark of Progress or a Threat to Privacy? In Policy Briefs (No. PB18–14; Policy Briefs). Peterson Institute for International Economics. https://ideas.repec.org/p/iie/pbrief/pb18-14.html

3. Creemers, R. (2018). China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3175792). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3175792

4. Liang, F., Das, V., Kostyuk, N., & Hussain, M. M. (2018). Constructing a Data-Driven Society: China’s Social Credit System as a State Surveillance Infrastructure. Policy & Internet, 10(4), 415–453. https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.183

5. Wang, X. (n.d.). Hundreds of Chinese citizens told me what they thought about the controversial social credit system. The Conversation. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from http://theconversation.com/hundreds-of-chinese-citizens-told-me-what-they-thought-about-the-controversial-social-credit-system-127467

6. 国务院关于印发社会信用体系建设规划纲要(2014–2020年)的通知_政府信息公开专栏. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20170703091824/http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2014-06/27/content_8913.htm

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