The “social credit” system (社会信用体系 shehui xinyong tixi) is a loose collective of decentralised efforts to ascribe a credit rating to every individual, company, and government body in China. It is a centralised attempt to nudge certain behaviours through a system of reward and punishment. The system is set to become the world’s largest social experiment, applying theories of behavioural science to a population of 1.4 billion people. Yet, despite initial international media coverage, little is known about how the social credit system operates in its current form.
Crucial to understanding social credit is the primacy of chengxin (诚信 chengxin) – which translates loosely as honesty, integrity, or trustworthiness
An Orwellian characterisation of social credit is the favoured narrative of English-language media and academia. Countless media stories compare the system with Nineteen Eighty-Four or other more contemporary cultural references such as the Netflix series Black Mirror. The underlying depiction of social credit in these instances is of ‘big data meets big brother’: a corporatist state spying on its population, hoarding vast swathes of personal data to be algorithmically synthesised into a single three-digit score that dictates one’s place in society. Punishments such as bans on individuals purchasing tickets for air travel have hit the headlines.
What observers overlook is some of the deeper roots that social credit has, some of which reach back into Chinese culture and history.
Crucial to understanding social credit is the primacy of chengxin (诚信 chengxin) – which translates loosely as honesty, integrity, or trustworthiness – as one of the scheme’s core goals. One of the 12 socialist core values promoted at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, chengxin has won additional attention in recent years; Xi Jinping called for stronger promotion of it at the 19th Party Congress. Many Chinese commentators seek to draw a distinct linear path between the virtue-based governance of the traditional Chinese state (以德治国 yi de zhiguo) and the chengxin culture re-emphasised by today’s Communist Party. Social credit, in this interpretation, is a formalisation of a venerable Chinese custom on trustworthiness. The codification of chengxin represents a binding together of law and morality which is not alien in its context or to the people to whom it is directed.
In addition, advocates of the social credit system see in it a solution to the problems that the Chinese court system finds in enforcing judicial decisions. In this sense, social credit adds another form of punishment which extends right across society and life. And in this longer view, this is just the latest in a series of initiatives to improve the efficacy of court rulings in the wake of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in 2014 and its focus on the ‘rule of law’ (法治 fazhi).
Social credit is still very much an emerging, and decentralised, system. Where is it heading at the present moment? To get a sense of this, it is worth listening carefully to the words of Zhang Yong, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, the government body formally responsible for the rollout of social credit by 2020. During the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2018, Zhang suggested several areas of improvement for social credit. Chengxin remains important: in his view, framing social credit in this more positive way has already started to take root at the local level. Instead of the sticks for which the system has become famous, dozens of cities are launching schemes to emphasise the carrots instead, incentivising behaviour in the form of subsidised utilities and free access to public transport.
But Zhang also believes that the system of joint rewards and punishments meted out through ‘redlists’ and blacklists requires expansion so as to achieve proper cross-jurisdictional incentives for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour. Interestingly, he also called for specific improvement of the way in which an individual’s credit record and, by extension, their membership of a blacklist is updated. In recent months, the Chinese media have featured numerous reports of individuals who have not had their credit record updated due to time delays or geographic distance and thus find themselves at the continued peril of blacklisting despite having paid their dues.
The debate around social credit’s future direction is likely only to intensify in the coming months and years as it reaches into ever deeper corners of Chinese society. The ‘big data meets big brother’ headlines in the West may be inevitable but they obscure the system’s roots in Chinese history and culture – or, at least, those roots that social credit’s proponents choose to emphasise.
Read the full edition of ECFR’s China Analysis, with chapters on social credit, AI, the digital revolution, and global technological competition.
Adam Knight is a freelance researcher and journalist focusing on the intersection between public and private actors in the regulation of China’s online sphere. He holds a BA in Chinese Studies and an MSc in Social Science of the Internet, both from the University of Oxford.
 “张勇：社会信用体系建设下一步主要在四个方面着力” “Zhang Yong: Four Important Areas to Strive Four in the Construction of a Social Credit System”, Xinhua, 6 March 2018, available at http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2018lh/2018-03/06/c_129823589.htm.
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