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In Data We Trust: China’s Social Credit system and the quantification of morality

By Maya Raphael

Human rights

Mar 15, 2018

If Black Mirror and Orwell’s 1984 had a child, that child would probably bear an uncanny resemblance to the subject of this article—China’s ‘Social-Credit system’. Unfortunately, this system is not a figment of the imagination created for a sci-fi anthology or dystopian fiction, but rather an evolving reality. So take your seats, get comfy, and have some popcorn ready at hand, while I present you with the next episode in the series, This is actually happening, society is fucked.

The Social Credit System is a government initiative, proposed by no other than (I hate for the protagonist to be so predictable…) China’s communist party. The initiative, which the Chinese government intends to launch nationally by 2020, will essentially be one of the biggest mass surveillance projects in history. It proposes to use big data analysis to track the economic, social and political behaviour of its 1.4 billion citizens, awarding them with three digit “citizen scores” (currently ranging from 350-950) based on algorithms, all of which will use numerous factors to determine how “trustworthy” a citizen is in the eyes of the Chinese government. While there is little information as to what the official government standards are for citizen scores, those being used in the pilot schemes make for pretty ominous indicators as to what they might be. Oh and by the way, these pilot schemes are being run by billion dollar private corporations (such as China’s retail giant Alibaba and its social-credit pilot Sesame Credit). Don’t capitalism and communism make for strange bedfellows when it comes to the profits of citizen data?

The factors that make up the citizen score start off pretty straightforward: your individual “credit history”. Do you pay your bills on time? Water? Electricity? Phone? Rent? Next, it’s down to “verification of your personal details”. Your phone number, home address, email— are you sure it’s all updated so that they can tie your digital identity to your real-life identity? And here’s where it starts getting a little more interesting, “personal behaviour and preference”. Your consumer behaviour is an indicator of how “trustworthy” you really are. For example, if you often purchase video games, expect your score to start plummeting, you are clearly an “idle” citizen. Ever make a reservation at a restaurant and just don’t turn up? Well, that’s no longer a good idea, call the restaurant and cancel immediately if you want to secure yourself a decent citizen score. And as if that’s not enough, another factor currently being taken into consideration is “interpersonal relationships”. Do you have a friend who is only a 400? Not a good idea. Your score might go down just for associating with them. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, did I mention that Sesame Credit has teamed up in a corporate data-tastic partnership with China’s largest online dating platform Baihe? Ouch. Good luck getting someone to swipe right with a score lower than 600.

So what will the consequences of these scores be? According to Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust? They will be far worse than just losing out on dates. People with low scores will have slower internet speeds, restricted access to restaurants, longer wait times in hospitals, their right to travel or move freely could be taken away from them and will have the burden of paying higher fees for services such as phone charging stations and city bike rentals—a consequence that’s already taken effect.

While mass surveillance, the omnipotent marriage of capitalist corporations and China’s communist government, the use of data tracking to monitor and shape the behaviour of citizens, and the draconian sanctions proposed for the “untrustworthy” are all terrifying, there is something else that scares me more; the way in which an economic discourse is being tacitly underpinned by a moral one. And unlike the points listed above, it scares me not because I’m disposed to seeing it as a warning sign, but precisely because I’m not.

“Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” This sentence, pious as it may seem, is not taken from a religious manuscript, but is stated in the Chinese government’s documents outlining the plans for the credit system. Still, tempted as I am to use this as yet another example of just how extreme and despotic the Chinese communist party and this particular initiative is, the more I think about the rhetoric used by governments and financial entities in the west—the more it, too, seems to be implicitly packaged in moral discourse. “Together we are one”, “Open. Honest. Hardworking”, ” The better we know you, the more we can do”, ” Honesty first”, “Trust. The feeling is Mutual”. These are just a few of the financial slogans belonging to banks in Europe and the US, the same institutions that have ingrained in us the belief that our financial decisions are not purely economic, but also moral. Take for example, the notion that debt must be paid back, and that houses, jobs and people’s life savings can all be claimed by those banks because not paying back debt is such a serious offence. However, as we so clearly witnessed in 2008, when these same institutions accumulated too much debt of their own, they didn’t have to abide by the moral rules and pay it back—the government bailed them out.

But still, in the western world we have not reached a point where who we are friends with on Facebook affects our credit ratings, right? Wrong. Affirm, a US online money-lending company owned by Paypal co-founder Max Levchin is already digging through its customer’s social networks to evaluate what the default risk might be. And Singapore-based Lenddo, a company which states that it uses “non-traditional data” to provide credit scores in order to fulfil its mission of “empowering the emerging middle class around the world” (how Miss America of them), is so thoughtful that it notifies a debtor’s friends on Facebook when they don’t pay their installations back on time.

Perhaps what we in the western world find so disturbing about China’s social-credit system is the bold and unmistakable government use of personal data for creating a moral index of what a good trustworthy citizen is. Yet maybe what should worry us instead is that corporate companies and governments in the west are doing much of the same thing, only without the transparency and visibility with which China is approaching this new venture. For all we know, we may have already been assigned a ranking in the trust index, yet as opposed to the Chinese, we just haven’t been informed as to what our score is.


Is debt something to be ashamed of? China thinks so

By Helena Kate Whittingham

WeChat, one of China’s most-used apps, has launched a new feature that will show users who has debt in their immediate surroundings. In an age when practically everyone is encouraged to live outside of their means and consume beyond their abilities through the capitalist agenda (China is communist but embraces capitalism), I wondered what are the aims of a feature like this? Why do we need to know who’s in debt and what is this for? As I scratched the surface of the issue, I discovered this is but the tip of a much more complex societal shift lying underneath.

With WeChat’s new feature shame-riddenly named ‘A map of deadbeat debtors’, people in debt in China will find it a lot more difficult to keep their debt a secret. The app will find and flag people within the radius of 500 meters of any user who are in debt, making it easier for people to whistle-blow on debtors. But why?

Described as one of the most ‘powerful apps’ by Forbes, WeChat was first rolled-out in 2011 and became one of the world’s largest downloadable apps last year, with over 1 billion users. WeChat is more than a messaging and social media app, it has been described as a ‘Super App’—which means it has numerous services integrated within it. You can, for example, chat and make calls, read the news, play games and enjoy mobile payment features with WeChat Pay, all without leaving the app. It’s important to note that WeChat has also been accused of censoring content on the app, such as politically important topics like human rights abuses.

The new ‘debt shaming’ feature provides users with indebted users’ details such as names, national ID numbers and details of the debt owed. Yet, this is only just the beginning of China’s impending social credit system, a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. Implemented by the Communist Party and reportedly fully operational by 2020, the system will have citizens and users of the app Sesame receive ‘social credit’ according to their consumer behaviour, work and marital status and even friends, which for some will bring privileges and for others, restriction in accessing day-to-day services.

Within two years, the official Party outlines that the new debt shaming feature will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”


Social Credit has already been tested in small villages across China, which initially started with ‘Information Collectors’ hired to watch and record information from the local area. Intricate social interactions are noted in order to evaluate a person’s credibility of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizenship, such as someone helping an elderly person through to littering. The Information Collectors then pass this data to a government worker who scores each individual, with this information becoming publically accessible. From this initially manual procedure, the social credit system was then taken over by big data technology and CCTV.

So how does social credit work, logistically? Initially, every citizen gets 1,000 points. Specific actions will then result in the individual’s score being reduced by a set number of points. Reportedly, examples of social credit behaviours which gain points include volunteering, money and blood donations; negative social credit and punishments come for actions such as violating traffic laws, missing taxes and buying certain things like video games. Any action you do will affect your access to transport and medicine, while accumulating good social credit gets you rewards such as lower rent and discounts of utilities. However, if your social credit is reduced to less than 1,000 points, you are unable to buy luxury items, attend private schools, get flights or high-speed trains, apply for loans, your internet services can be reduced, and even your dog may be taken away as you will be publically named as a bad citizen and ‘untrustworthy’. Even what you put into your weekly shopping trolley could impact your social score. For example, buying too much alcohol might suggest dependence and you’ll lose a couple of points.

And with the current (and still counting) 200 million CCTV cameras in China, there is no corner to hide. as it now stands, 4 million people have been blocked from access to high-speed trains and a further 11 million barred from flights as a result of their social credit being too low.

Western media has largely discredited the social credit system and despite the creepiness of the system, some Chinese citizens are already saying that it’s making them better citizens (is this a case of self-censorship because they know Big Brother is watching?).

If your social credit gets too low and you are publicly blacklisted, there is little you can do to redeem this. If I was a Chinese citizen and writing this article about censorship and government corruption, I would be blacklisted, with no file, no police warrant, and no official advance notification. I would just be cut off from the things I was once entitled to and there is nothing I could do about it.

There are many parts of the system which are unclear and because of this, it’s hard to imagine or even write about as evidently the system is truly unique and far removed from the communist regime or capitalist structure we currently know. I speculate life under the state’s panopticon-like, all-seeing surveillance network would be similar to Nudge Theory, a concept in behavioural science, and a political theory which Wikipedia defines as “positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals.”

Make no mistake, in the U.K. we also have similar social-style scores, from your eBay rating to your Uber rating, if your score falls too far—you’re out of luck. The debt shaming feature of WeChat seems to be a natural step from the seemingly bizarre Sesame social credit score, yet reminiscent of medieval shaming parades, you are essentially being digitally pilloried by your peers for having debt that for most, is not a choice.

The Chinese government states that social credit is based on ‘trust and consequence’, but as trust is a subjective concept, once you lose trust, how do you become trustworthy again? And can this truly be numerically equated? The risk of humans becoming little more than their social numeric value, subjected to public naming and shaming, is imminent. As a young adult, I don’t really know anyone who isn’t in debt, whether it’s credit cards, school fees and loans, or simply owing your mates. In that light, there is something to say about removing the shame from debt, but for now, WeChat is certainly on the wrong path to doing this.