Made in China
The Chinese social credit system
By analysing China’s history, it is evident that the country grew immensely in the last 30 years – from a developing country to the world’ second economic potency. The expansion was due to the development of technology. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used this development to their benefit. Unlike in Western Countries, where technology is a tool for freedom, expression and free association; in China, technology is an instrument for political propaganda and social management to discourage political dissent, preserve social stability and model its citizens. In 2014, the CCP introduced a new system of mass surveillance that relies on big data to monitor citizens’ behaviours, called the Social Credit System (SCS).
The Chinese government has been developing the social credit system since 199, according to Lin Junyue, one of the most important minds behind the system. It was in 2014 that the Chinese government announced the SCS as an opt-in system. Its inherent requirements: establishing the idea of a sincerity culture and promoting honesty and traditional values. The SCS uses encouragements for trustworthiness and punishments against untrustworthiness as an incentive mechanism. The objective of the SCS is to raise consciousness, credit levels of the entire society and to silence dissent.
The social credit is attributed based on each actors’ lawful or unlawful actions and also on the morality of their actions covering economic, social and political conduct. Each citizen and business are attributed 1000 starting points and those points are reduced and added according to their social behaviours, which are closely scrutinized. ‘Bad’ behaviours will deduct points which will then result in limited access to schools, hospitals or doctors, restricted or prohibited travel, higher interests on financial loads and sanctions on private companies. Some elements of the SCS are already in place, in the past 5 years more five million people had suffered from international and domestic travel bans. It is worth to emphasise that the Chinese government is also included. Westerns compare the Chinese authoritarian government’ manipulation of big data, technology and facial recognition to a real-life version of the back mirror episode “Nosedive”.
The Chinese government also invited private companies, such as Alibaba’s Ant Financial, to implement a voluntary SCS called Sesame Credit. The Sesame Credit’s foundation and function is identical to the SCS, the data collected and analysed is then fed into SCS for profiling. The data is collected by Artificial Intelligence (AI), such as facial recognition software, which is utilised in closed-circuit with over 200 million surveillance cameras in China. The government also uses tracking systems to look for evidence of anti-government ideologies through partnerships with many of Chinese’s popular websites. Essentially, China’s government is able to collect data on every action taken by a Chinese resident on their desktop, tablet and mobile phone. One of the issues that this represents is that the data is collected, is harvested with little legal protection and there is no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to produce a score or ranking.
It is argued that the SCS in its current form is very chaotic and has too many actors involved. This because there is an absence of an underlaying legal framework which makes local authorities lose the general direction to develop a unified credit information collection and classification management standard. Instead, each region and government build their own credit platforms however, from time to time competed for dominance in the construction of the credit system, based on their interests, which leads to further inconsistencies. The autonomy of the regions is starting to concern the government about discrimination and misuse of the SCS. This because, the credit system may widen the class division as the scores are liked to each citizen’s social and economic status.
The SCS was meant to be applied nation-wide in 2020, however due to COVID-19 it was delayed. Nonetheless, the government issued guidelines for further improvements that highlights the importance of central legislation and lays ground for a future national law on SCS. The government also emphasised that the local authorities misapprehended the definition of ‘bad behaviour’, for instance spitting in public should not be part of the credit score and only illegal activities defined by law should be punished. Additionally, an appeal court was established to formally allow citizens to appeal their scores.
Even though the SCS was not fully implanted national-wide in 2020, it allowed China to prove to the rest of the world that surveillance on a massive scale and in an emergency is feasible and effective. Therefore, the pandemic allowed China to expand and promote its tech-enabled authoritarianism as world’s best practice and to set new norms in digital rights and technology by exporting digital surveillance and tracking systems with ‘Chinese characteristics’ around the globe.
Some European countries have implemented their own version of the SCS, such as Sweden and Germany. Sweden has created rice grain-sized microchip that can be implanted under the skin of one’s hand to replace the need for keys, credit cards and train tickets. 4,000 Swedes have adopted the technology. Germany has a credit scoring system known as Schufa similar to FICO, but grades Germans on how healthy they are as well by offering them cheaper premiums if you share data from your fitness tracker proving you’re keeping active.
Idealistic, the development of technology should be accompanied by the development of technology law to protect individuals against violations of their privacy, freedom of expression and discrimination. However, realistically, there is a lack of general knowledge of how data is collected and used. The European and national laws protecting individuals against such violations are fairly recent and do not evolve as rapidly as technology does, which is problematic. Furthermore, the pandemic has shaped the future and that technological surveillance has been normalised and it is predicted that democracies will increasable use such surveillance. However, unlike in China, our democracies have a legal obligation to counter the harmful of China’s global technology agenda and to employ technology for the public’s benefit while preserving democratic rights and liberties.