Please note: this is the full version of an article that is set to appear in the Conversation this week. This longer version is aimed at those interested in reading more about the topic.
The Social Credit System: Current Context
There has recently been a considerable amount of media coverage of the Chinese social credit system. This tends to be heated and unequivocally negative, as a kind of manifestation of China as 1984.
My recent 16-month on-the-ground anthropological research explains the reasons why some ordinary Chinese members of the public welcome the system*.
Although critics often see the system as an intrusive state surveillance apparatus, there is a perception among the Chinese population that this is a national project to boost public morality, fight fraud and other crimes and generally fix the nationwide crisis of trust gripping the country.
Chances are that before reading this, you will have heard of the social credit system and may even know one or several things about it. Originally proposed in 2014 and set to be rolled out nationwide against a self-imposed deadline of 2020, the system has been described by the South China Morning Post as China’s “most ambitious project in social engineering since the Cultural Revolution”. The aim is for the national system, once fully functional, to allocate a social credit score to members of the public based on their social, economic or other activities and deeds. With the so-called ‘red-list’ and ‘blacklist’, the aim is to effectively regulate both the behaviour of private citizens as well as that of businesses. The social credit system (Shehui xinyong tixi in Mandarin) will leverage ‘Big Data’ including geolocation, purchasing history, social media content, and footage from CCTVs equipped with facial recognition technology (already in use in several first-tier Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai). Given China’s poor record of data security, it is understandable that commentary around the issue is largely negative, with the system having been called an ‘Orwellian system controlling virtually every facet of human life’ or likening it to a dystopian episode of the series Black Mirror.
Given this context, I want to shed some light on some of the concerns and myths surrounding the issue of shehui xinyong (social credit) system. I recently came back from doing ethnographic research for the UCL’s ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’ project, which involved 16 months of living in in Shanghai (from late 2017 to 2019). During my time there, I found that positive perceptions of the social credit system among ordinary Chinese people were more prevalent than negative ones. Some welcomed the introduction of the shehui xinyong system while others were indifferent, and a significant number could see its benefits. How can we explain this extreme discrepancy in perception and attitude?
To take a step back, there is of course the factor of how big issues such as this are discussed in China versus how they are discussed outside of China, which can differ significantly due to factors like censorship. It is not unusual for issues about China to develop into a more heated discussion outside of China. As the old Chinese saying goes: ‘The flower tree planted inside the wall, has its blossom seen outside the wall’. Nowadays, ‘the wall’ in question has certainly been upgraded to version 2.0 in the form of the ‘Great Firewall’. The case of the social credit system is different however – we are not just talking about groups of dissidents wanting to bypass things, but something that may soon concern every single citizen’s everyday life.
Chinese citizens are not unaware of the massive amounts of personal data being collected ‘smartly’ (in real time and connecting many different elements such as buying history and geolocation) and the consequences of poor data security have not gone unaddressed either – see the recent public outcry with regards to the ‘deepfake’ app ‘Zao’ (a convincing face-swapping app that can insert anyone’s face into videos, TV shows and other media after uploading a single photograph). In the context of China being a country where ‘Smile to Pay’ facial recognition systems are used for payment (Alipay), it is understandable that this would deepen fraud concerns.
To sum up, although factors like censorship might have been the reason for the conversation not being as heated inside China, it does not seem to account for the way ordinary Chinese people praise the social credit system even in private and informal talks among friends.
China’s crisis of trust
“Living in China is tiring…you have to be vigilant and always on-guard against others, so you don’t fall into pits which are everywhere.”
Mr. Zhu, in his 40s, explains his reluctance to let his mother use a smartphone – she may fall prey to online scammers. He is not alone in worrying about what is seen as an intensifying crisis of public morality and a crisis of trust crisis that manifests through everything from rising numbers of fraud cases, to widely publicised scandals in the country’s food safety and pharmaceutical industries.
The question of who to trust, and social trust more broadly is one that is pertinent to every modern society, not just China. Although the idea of someone being ‘trustworthy’ (chengxin) has long existed in the Chinese traditional moral system, it is widely believed this was fundamentally damaged in the past 50 years, starting with Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), now seen as a period characterised by the ‘breakdown of public morality’. A turbulent period characterised by families turning on each other and being forced to denounce any friends or family members deemed counter-revolutionary, the Cultural Revolution has also had the effect of eroding the concept of chengxin and therefore also mutual trust over time. Erosion of social trust during and following periods of political turmoil is of course also not unique to China.
In addition, back when China was an agricultural society, a person’s social role was relatively fixed, meaning those who came in contact with them were more certain about whether they could trust them, given that the interaction happened within a clear network of social relations. The Chinese concept of ‘guanxi’ (loosely translated as social relation) doesn’t only refer to social connections but is a more sophisticated concept that refers to a trusted social relation in which endorses an individual’s value. Risk management based on guanxi was confronted with unprecedented challenges as a result of fast-paced urbanisation, market-orientated economic reforms as well as massive domestic migration over the past thirty years. The fact that these enormous social and economic changes followed political upheavals political upheavals has massively contributed to the current trust crisis in China, where a large part of the population feels that they are ‘uncertain’ about whether to trust people, with a significant number also seeing themselves as victims of fraud. So severe is this nationwide crisis of trust that even President Xi reportedly believes China is “losing its moral compass”.
Let us take another example: 35-year-old Mrs. Liu was one of my research participants, and the mother of a new-born. While searching for a full-time, live-in nanny to take care of her baby due to her mother being unable to take care of him because of ill health, she found herself deeply troubled by the stories she was hearing about live-in nannies:
“I have been told so many bad stories about those live-in nannies, from stealing to abuse… nowadays very few locals are willing to do the job. Rural migrant workers are not trustworthy, many of them have low suzhi (human quality) without any credit. They are here in a big city, nobody can tell where they come from and where they have been or what they have done. Everything can be faked, fake ID, fake personal stories, I have even heard of domestic agencies helping workers fake a whole ‘package’ of information. If something wrong happens, they can just move to a different place, and nobody will know.”
In the end, following her friends’ suggestions, Mrs. Liu installed secret monitors at home to test different nannies and ended up hiring the one whose behaviour was most trustworthy when she thought nobody was looking.
As Mrs. Liu says, there are many cases of fraud and scams where the victim does not get compensated for the crime perpetrated, and the offender can simply move to another province or start a business in a different industry, with little trace of who they were in the past, and having faced no consequences. The national blacklist, one of the central elements of the proposed social credit system, is supposed to remedy this. People also believe that a quantified credit score can help mediate or settle legal settlement of economic disputes. In China, it is not unusual for lawbreakers to fail to pay debts or fines, or in some cases even to issue an apology to an injured party. In cases where the set fines are not seen as punitive enough, and the crime is too minor to lead to imprisonment, there seems to be no other form of redress, leading to a vacuum which some think can be filled by the credit system. Blacklisted citizens are penalised by being prevented from buying plane or high-speed train tickets, staying in luxury hotels or getting personal loans. They are also not allowed to join the civil service, take senior jobs in state-owned firms or start companies in the food or drugs industries. It is reported that already today, more than 12 million people are on this blacklist and they have been denied more than 17 million plane tickets and 5 million high-speed train tickets.
Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that the social credit system can deter not only ‘unethical’ deeds such as scams or fraud, but also what are referred to as ‘uncivilised’ (anti-social) deeds.
Mr. Zhu says:
“I can’t wait for the implementation of the social credit system, there will be less fraud for sure. Also, I think about those who play videos out aloud on public transport, those who jump queues, those who just dump shared bikes irresponsibly in the middle of the road… I bet they will behave themselves if they know their ‘bu wenming’ (uncivilized) actions will actually be recorded by high technology. Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?”
Both Mr. Zhu and Mrs. Liu regard themselves as good citizens and believe only bad citizens should be worried about the credit system. As a popular Chinese aphorism goes, “The only way to prevent people from knowing what you did is not to do it at all in the first place”. In Mrs. Liu’s case, there is support for a social credit system that is pervasive and based on (sometimes secret) surveillance. The average person is clearly less concerned about giving up some privacy if this means a significantly higher degree of security and certainty.
“The end justifies the means,” says Mr. Zhu.
The ‘imported’ modern credit system
A widespread belief in China which Mr. Zhu and many others uphold is that western society is ‘civilised’ (wenming) precisely due to its very own long-existing credit system. This is perpetuated by different myths and some invented stories which have tended to circulate in Chinese society. A typical such story would be:
An intelligent Chinese young woman is studying in a European country and while travelling, notices that there are no ticket barriers in place and tickets are rarely checked. Because transport is expensive, she decides to take advantage of this ‘loopholes’ and rides the train for free every time she needs to travel. Although she gets caught a few times, most of the time she gets away with it and even feels smug about it. She finally graduates with great marks and starts jobhunting. Although she gets to the final interview stage on multiple occasions and the interviews go well, she seems to be unable to secure a job. When she asks an HR Manager for feedback on why she was not successful, she is told: “Both your CV and your performance in the interview have recommended you as the ideal candidate for the role. However, when we checked your individual credit record, we found that you have caught dodging train fares three times. Unfortunately, we have no confidence that you can be a good fit for our company, which values honesty above than anything else”.
There are many different versions of this story, from shorter versions appearing in print magazines to online articles. These differ only in the details – sometimes the protagonist is a man rather than a woman, and the setting of the story can either be a European country or the United States. Regardless of these minute details, the main message of the allegorical story remains the same – a capable person without credit has no chance of being successful in a Western or indeed any modern society where individual citizens carry their own verifiable credit history with them throughout their lives. These stories were becoming popular well before the announcement of the social credit system and during my field work in Shanghai, more than half of the research participants I spoke to confirmed their familiarity with these stories.
Mrs. Cai, a retired middle-school physics teacher in her 70s, is one of the citizens who has strong faith in the so-called credit system used in the West. Assuming that I, as a university staff member in London, must have a good score in the UK’s credit system, she even asked me to share some of my experience with her grandson who is planning to study in the UK. Although many people don’t have a clear picture of how exactly credit histories or scores are calculated or used in the West in general, there is a belief that there is a pervasive and all-encompassing credit system in place in developed countries, something that makes it easy to trust even strangers. The myth is not unrelated to the fact that financial credit scores were introduced to China in the 1980s, during a period of economic liberalisation, as a Western import, which makes the current social credit system a sort of extended version of these in the imagination of some members of the public.
However, the deeper and underlying reason for the popularity of such myths lies in the fact that Chinese society has been seeking a model of moral guidance during a time of painful transition from an agricultural and collective society to a modern individualistic one (and therefore one where the previous methods of risk management and checking trustworthiness have disappeared). While the stories mentioned above may be false, they are simply the reflection of a commonly held imagination of the problem created by individualism and modernity in China as well as the emerging social expectation that individuals take full responsibility for and be judged by their deeds.
Life as credit
Having set the context and talked about why some citizens welcome the security promised by the credit system, it is important to mention that notions of responsibility and judgement are actually nothing new, being rooted in traditional Chinese culture. Although the structure and tech-facilitated implementation used by the social credit system may look very modern in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese citizens, the underlying logic of the system is actually in line with the deep-rooted cosmology of Chinese folk religion, itself influenced by Buddhism as well as Daoism.
Talking about issues of ethics and morality, people in China often refer to an old saying: ren zai zuo, tian zai kan (“people are doing things, the sky is watching”).This reflects a common belief shared by the Chinese that whatever you do on the earth, there is always a record of your good and bad deeds in the ‘sky’ (tian). Unlike the Christian God, the concept of tian is much ‘nebulous’ and less humanised and somewhat resembles the laws of nature (especially in the discourse of Daoism). Tian resembles the sky in that it is distant to the point that it has given up on the task of reconciling the human world with itself, but nevertheless knows about everyone’s deeds and thoughts. Tian therefore doesn’t judge ‘randomly’ – one can potentially create a good fate through good deeds.
As the anthropologist Rudolf Wagner argues, traditionally, Chinese people view life itself as credit. In this case, the system of ‘karma points’ is simply the standardisation of the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers. One can earn points by doing good deeds, but these can also be easily squandered through bad ones.
The social credit system as it exists today, which is more like a patchy network of regional pilots and experimental projects, still has a long way to go before becoming a comprehensive system at a national scale which determines every aspect of a citizen’s life within a single score. One can obviously debate whether it is appropriate for the state to play this role of Tian, but the very acknowledgement of the fact that the social credit system neatly matches a fundamental understanding of the relationship between human beings, society and the universe helps us to understand why the popular response has so far not been what might have been expected.
* This article is based on a 16-month traditional ethnography on the use of digital devices such as smartphones in Shanghai. Ethnography tries to minimise artificial encounters, such as surveys and interviews, in favour of being present with people in their everyday lives. I estimate that I talked with around 500 people and there are 146 people I would have spent at least 15 hours with. Conversations about the social credit system came up naturally rather than through direct elicitation.
 Rudolf Wagner. 2014. Fate’s gift money: the Chinese case of coping with the asymmetry between man and fate. In Hagen, J. & Welker, M. Money as God. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 184-218.