Lentis/China’s Social Credit System
“Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”
- Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System, 2014
The Chinese Social Credit System is a system in development by the Chinese government to assess the economic and social standing of its citizens and businesses. The Chinese government announced it in 2014 with the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System with the program beginning in 2020.
The Chinese government aims to have this system create a public, quantitative measure of how various citizens and businesses are acting in accordance with the government's behavioral standards. The credit system is intended to protect the rights and interests of the citizens, and to provide common ethical standards for Chinese citizens to strive for. The system also aims to deter dishonest, unpatriotic, or criminal behavior by providing a reward and punishment system relative to a given individual or businesses social credit score.
While the nationwide program has not formally begun, in the time since its announcement the People’s Bank of China partnered with 8 companies to implement pilot systems to get a sense of how the 2020 version of the system can be implemented successfully. At the forefront of these pilot programs is a large system called Sesame Credit owned by the Alibaba Group, a multinational conglomerate holding company. Each company handles separate cities and provinces to implement and test their respective private Social Credit Systems.
Sesame Credit is owned by the Alibaba Group and developed by the Ant Financial Services Group. It spans over five fields: credit history, online behavior, use of products and services, personal characteristics, and interactions and relationships with others. The score is modeled similarly to the American FICO credit score. The data is tracked by using Alibaba services, like Alipay, for monitoring. There are 300 million registered users and 37 million small businesses that use these services. They state that all of the data is encrypted and segregated and can only be accessed through the authorization of the subject.
In 2020, the Chinese government plans to remove all of the pilot programs and make one unified system where all 1.7 billion citizens, including businesses, are stored in a centralized database to be scored and accredited based upon all of the programs previously created.
Increasing and Decreasing Score Users' score varies from day to day increasing and decreasing for the smallest of actions to make sure they are acting in the form of a model citizen. A short example list for both include:
- Donating to Charity
- Blood Donations
- Purchasing Diapers
- Paying bills on time
- Cleaning/upkeep business storefront
- Taking care of your pet properly
- Praising the government
- Helping the poor
- Illegally crossing the street
- Smoking in prohibited areas
- Missing Bill Payments
- Improperly sorting disposables
- Blocking passageways in highly congested areas (eg: airports)
- Attending rallies/riots
- Purchasing alcohol
- Playing video games for extended periods
- Not visiting elderly relatives often enough
Benefits and Punishments
- Higher Exposure on dating applications compared to normal users
- Rentals without deposits
- Better interest rates at banks
- Decreased heating/electricity bills
- Priority patient in hospitals
- Priority children’s school admissions
- Faster work promotions
- Tax Breaks
- Free Starbucks Drinks
- Banned from planes/trains
- Throttling of internet speeds
- Banning of persons/children of persons from best schools
- In 2018, a student’s acceptance into a Chinese university was revoked because of his father’s low social credit score
- His father failed to pay $29,900 he owed to a bank
- In 2018, a student’s acceptance into a Chinese university was revoked because of his father’s low social credit score
- Denial of jobs
- Inability to book hotels
- Loss of pet-owning rights
- Inability to purchase using WeChat
- Public blacklist
- Displayed in movie theater before movie starts
- Billboard public when cross walk
- Restricted public services
Users are tracked through the credit system through not just their accounts, but also through surveillance. Currently, there are an estimated 200 million cameras installed in China, compared to 50 million in the United States, to keep watch over its citizens and that number is expected to increase to 626 million in 2020 . Along with a vast camera system, China is also developing "cutting edge" cameras such as a 500 megapixel one that can produce clear images of human faces in high traffic areas. These cameras can be connected to an identification system that allows for facial recognition to find out what users are doing, and identify vehicles and people that break the law, such as not stopping at crosswalks are jaywalking which can result in deductions to their social credit score.
The surveillance system has allowed the police to arrest find and arrest 6,000 suspects in 2016. This system has also been used to follow not only citizens but also tourist and stores them into the police database also to watch out for disturbances.
There are also advanced smart glasses that will/can have access to the government/company database to use facial identification technology to analyze and identify citizens to help the police see citizen records and identify criminals.
in 2018, China has also added a surveillance technology being bird drones equipped with an HD camera, GPS, an electric motor to flap its wings, and a flight control system.
Messaging Super app
China’s SuperApp, WeChat, is an app that allows users to be able to do almost anything from simple messaging to online and in-person payments, food delivery, ticket purchasing for movies and travel, and even games. The app was created by one of the largest companies in the world, Tencent, who was even one of the eight companies that the government contracted to help implement a private version of the social credit system. Tencent claims one billion daily active users and WeChat accounts for market penetration in China at a staggeringly 79% which makes it the largest application in China’s market.
In May of 2014, all types of messaging apps such as WeChat, are required to allow the government to monitor the activity and information of its users to remove malpractice of “rumors and information leading to violence, terrorism, and pornography.” 
Social credit systems have been highly approved of in China. They are viewed as a technological improvement meant to benefit society and citizens are not especially concerned with their privacy as many are under the assumption that the government already is storing their data.
A study conducted at the University of Berlin surveyed over 2000 Chinese citizens on their social credit system involvement. 80% of the Chinese population has taken part in some sort of commercially available social credit system. 80% of the population also approves of using social credit systems while only 20% are either neutral or disapprove and distrust them. Systems run by the central government were used by less than 8% of users as commercially available systems currently are more developed, but will likely see more users in the future with improvement.
There is some variation across certain demographics. Individuals who have a higher income, live in urban areas, and have higher levels of education tend to show more approval of social credit systems. This could be attributed to the increase in opportunities and benefits that come from social credit involvement for individuals in these demographics.
It should be noted, however, that this study’s data was obtained through an online questionnaire that may have been under Chinese government supervision and could have influenced results.
Public opinion of Chinese social credit systems in the United States has been disapproving. The media has labeled these systems as a dystopian and nightmarish, describing them as analogous to popular culture references such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Black Mirror. Words like “rank”, “grade”, “judge” and other similar words are often found in articles discussing how the systems work. In 2015, the ACLU published an article demonstrating the fear of implementation and potential abuse of such a system in the United States.
In the US, these systems have been called “social credit systems”, carrying a connotation similar to that of the "credit score", assessing one's ability to repay debt. However, a more literal translation from Chinese may be “public trust system” which reflects the goals of the system as outlined by the Chinese Government in a 2014 document.
Abuse of the System
Uighur, a Chinese Muslim group, are primarily under fire from the Chinese government. The government has been exposed to using facial recognition software, proxy by cameras, along with using DNA recognition to detain these citizens and place them in concentration camps.
The Christian community has had churches shut down for reasons such as having unlawful gatherings and being uncooperative in allowing the government to install cameras in their church. Pastors have also been jailed for times up to 15 years, and the government has a plan to promote Chinese Christianity which calls for a rewriting of the Bible.
Lack of Redemption
Liu Hu, a previously largely popular detective in China, lost a case where he accused an official of extortion. The punishment was to publish a public apology and pay a fine. The court then asked for an extra fee, but when he refused, Hu was then blacklisted and now is under effective house arrest as he can not apply for a high-speed train to travel quickly anymore. His social media accounts, where he posted most of his journalism, have also been shut down.
Other Similar Systems
In February 2019, The New York Department of Financial Services announced that life insurance companies would be able to base premiums off of customers' social media posts. The goal of this was to streamline this process by replacing in-person lifestyle questionnaires with an automated algorithm.
Patronscan is a company that creates ID verification systems. Their products can record incidents that occur under a specific identity and puts those names in a database. Patronscan customers can then view this list and prevent individuals with a record from entering events requiring identification.
Netflix takes user watch history data and attempts to recommend specific shows and movies that the user might be interested in.
Uber allows for drivers to rate their riders and makes it visible to other drivers which could influence riders’ ability to obtain a ride. In 2015 Uber announced that riders with a rating significantly below average could be banned from using Uber.
China has been developing a social credit system for a more efficient and harmonious society. This system will monitor all Chinese citizens and assign them a corresponding score that translates to certain benefits or punishments. Reception in China appears to be positive but has been negative in other countries, such as the United States. Yet, despite the disapproval, similar systems already exist outside of China to streamline certain processes. As China continues to proceed with its social credit plan, whether or not other countries follow suit will depend on their societal values. It is the balance between efficiency and privacy. Those willing to sacrifice privacy for a more streamlined society may be willing to take part in such a system, while those who value privacy more may not.
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- Marr, B. (2019, January 21). Chinese Social Credit Score: Utopian Big Data Bliss Or Black Mirror On Steroids? https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/01/21/chinese-social-credit-score-utopian-big-data-bliss-or-black-mirror-on-steroids/#61745ad948b8
- Vlahos, K. B. (2019, June 24). George Orwell’s Dystopian Nightmare In China. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/george-orwells-dystopian-nightmare-in-china-1984/
- Stanley, J. (2015, October 8). China's Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans. https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/consumer-privacy/chinas-nightmarish-citizen-scores-are-warning-americans?page=1&redirect=blog/free-future/chinas-nightmarish-citizen-scores-are-warning-americans#comments-top.
- Matsakis, L. (2019, July 29). How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong. https://www.wired.com/story/china-social-credit-score-system/
- China Law Translate. (2015, April 27). Establishment of a Social Credit System. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/socialcreditsystem/
- NYDFS. (2019, January 18). Insurance Circular Letter No. 1 (2019): Use of External Consumer Data and Information Sources in Underwriting for Life Insurance. https://www.dfs.ny.gov/industry_guidance/circular_letters/cl2019_01.
- Elgan, M. (2019, August 26). Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system. https://www.fastcompany.com/90394048/uh-oh-silicon-valley-is-building-a-chinese-style-social-credit-system
- Parker, K. (2019, May 29). Safety and respect for all: Uber Newsroom US. Retrieved from https://www.uber.com/newsroom/safety-and-respect-for-all/.