Credible Voices on Social Credit in China

Last week, city authorities in released a “Municipal Action Plan for Further Optimizing the Business Environment (2018-2020),” which included goals for the development of social credit programs within the capital. Although experts’ persistent corrections of misconceptions about social credit have gained some traction, media reports on the Beijing plans repeated many of the same mistakes. Yale Law School and China Law Translate’s Jeremy Daum, one of the keenest observers of the system and sharpest critics of its coverage abroad, commented on Twitter:

Daum recently condensed findings from his ongoing examination of social credit and collection of related documents at China Law Translate into the more accessible form of a 17-minute podcast, with transcript. In it, he outlines social credit’s three key financial, regulatory, and educational dimensions. What they add up to, he says, “just isn’t that exciting. It’s pretty mundane regulatory law with only a few new wrinkles.” He does highlight potential concerns such as erosion of anonymity and potentially unfair or disproportionate punishments, however, and addresses the question: “How did social credit get to be so interesting to Western audiences? […] What does it mean that this story has continued to capture people’s attention for so long?”

Social credit isn’t really about a credit score at all, in fact it’s less of a single system or a program than a vague idea that covers a wide variety of regulation- the unifying feature in them all, to the extent that there is one, is that keeping records will help make people more honest and reduce misconduct.

[…] I do want to address the point systems that have appeared in a couple of dozen different pilot or demonstration cities. I tend to disregard them quite a bit because I see them as part of the educational or propaganda arm of Social Credit, trying to raise that culture of creditworthiness. Part of this is that in most of the laws like Shanghai which does have an app giving points,and also has a comprehensive regulation of Social Credit that doesn’t mention that app or scores of any kind. More importantly what I’ve noticed is that there are never real punishments for low scores and no punishments ever for things that aren’t violations of existing law or legal obligations. The prizes tend to be along the lines of various citizenship awards that existed previously; things like for being a model citizen, model worker, civilized work unit, etc.

[…] I also have trouble envisioning a universal score with more serious consequences because I don’t think a universal score is that useful to people. The example that I like to give is that when you enter a restaurant you’re looking for information on the Sanitation of the restaurant and the quality of the food. If there’s an ‘A’ on the wall that means seven people got food poisoning here last week but the chef visits his grandma a lot and never speed, that’s not helpful to you. Everyone is looking for data they can use. Banks want to know who can repay loans, the police want to know who’s likely to commit crimes, some of this data is attainable some of it’s not, but we’re looking for something that’s useful. A general score just won’t help you find the data you need.

And I think data is the key. It’s the key to why the story has become so fascinating as we all become aware that we’re generating so much more information about what we do; a digital footprint for every action that we take. But most of us don’t know where that data is going and what ends it could be used for. I think it’s that fear about our own data that has led this story to be so interesting, and that the idea of a data-driven society has become so fascinating. [Source]

In another recent podcast, the University of Leiden’s Rogier Creemers and What’s On Weibo’s Manya Koetse discussed myths surrounding social credit with Kaiser Kuo at Sinica. Creemers’ previous contributions on the topic include the 15,000 word paper “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control” and a 36-minute video talk demystifying the subject; Koetse’s include reporting on Chinese social media discussions and on different portrayals and perceptions in and outside China. In the podcast, Koetse described social credit in China as “a culture or idea rather than a system per se,” and lamented the overly political lens through which it is widely viewed in the West as a “one-dimensional” matter of “the state vs the people.” She also noted that these problems extend beyond Anglophone media, though often because coverage in other languages appears to follow English reports’ lead. Creemers repeatedly emphasized that social credit is “an amplification device for the enforcement of existing laws and regulations,” and more an ecosystem than a single system. Both addressed the contrast between generally positive attitudes toward technology in China and the pessimism and wariness now prevalent in the West, as well as widespread conflation of social credit with other forms of , particularly in . The latter also arose as a deliberate straw man for Foreign Policy’s James Palmer to knock down in Vox’s Worldly podcast earlier this month as Palmer explained the “crisis of unprecedented proportions” now taking place in the region.

While social credit and the situation in Xinjiang are in many ways distinct, there are also commonalities. At The New York Times this week, in the context of “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, La Trobe University’s James Leibold argued that the project is rooted in traditional ambitions for Chinese government to straighten the “crooked timber” of human nature “in the pursuit of social harmony.” Creemers’ paper similarly highlights historical antecedents for social credit’s goal of moral improvement.

Jeremy Daum also appeared this month at Elizabeth Lynch’s China Law and Policy blog in an extensive and thorough two-part discussion of social credit, its goals, and the frequent misconceptions about it.

CL&P: In concluding, so it seems like the , I mean it’s a fascinating, fascinating thing what they’re trying to do. […] What do you think are the things that people should be . . . that the Chinese government and the Chinese people maybe should be looking at to be a little nervous about?

JD: Yeah, so there’s a few things. The first is something that’s already happening which is the real name systems. This is a phenomena that I think a lot of governments are dealing with trying to end data islands by connecting all of this data that the government collects. The government-created data in China is known as public social credit information. Public in the sense of government, not private, not market. I think that anonymity in some aspects of your life, not having all of your data linked is important. It’s not just important for political dissonance and dissent, it’s important for people with unpopular opinions and unpopular lifestyles.

[…] The other thing that I think with China’s system that’s important to remember is while I’ve said that the administrative regulation part isn’t so much new or bad as social credit because all it’s really doing is enforcing legal obligations, existing laws. Just that something was in an existing law doesn’t mean it’s good. Better enforcement of bad laws is a problem. Generally speaking enforcement of laws is desirable, but if your law is already unfair that can be an issue. And there are laws in China that I disagree with.

[…] It’s worth pointing out here another thing which is a lot of people seem to mingle parts of China’s surveillance apparatus as a whole with social credit. These aren’t necessarily the same systems. Social credit for sure is part of the way of keeping tabs on people in China. It has these administrative permits and administrative punishments in it primarily and also this lending information and financial parts. It’s certainly part of that, but the police also have their own systems that involve the cameras we see on the street. That involve the ability to access computers and networks.

This is part of why when I hear discussion of this being the totalitarian control through social credit, I’m like “China actually has plenty of very blunt, straightforward tools for control.” And you only need to look at Xinjiang to see that. When China has a problem that it wants to deal with it usually has few issues with taking a direct approach to resolving it. Despite appearances, I think China’s actually pretty transparent about what the goals of social credit are and what the goals of surveillance are. [Source]

Rogier Creemers has similarly commented that although the future extent and direction of social credit remains uncertain, there are “other, much more targeted and scary tools” of repression already at the authorities’ disposal. At Foreign Policy two weeks ago, Yale Law School and Brookings’ Jamie P. Horsley made the same point in addressing misconceptions about social credit in light of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s reference to it in an October speech as “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.” (Pence also made problematic reference to CDT’s translation of leaked orders for media coverage of the U.S.-China trade conflict.)

It’s not surprising that myths about the system are spreading, given the shrinking space in China for civil society, rights lawyering, speech, investigative journalism, and religious belief; its increasingly ubiquitous, invasive surveillance capability; and the Chinese Communist Party’s push to apply big data and artificial intelligence in governance. China’s party-state is collecting a vast amount of information on its citizens, and its social credit system and other developments internally and overseas raise many serious concerns. But contrary to the mainstream media narrative on this, Chinese authorities are not assigning a single score that will determine every aspect of every citizen’s life—at least not yet.

[…] The social credit system’s use of public blacklists and shaming—what one scholar calls “reputation mechanisms”—as well as the joint punishment mechanism that essentially imposes yet another layer of penalty enforcement for legal offenses are controversial and problematic. The standards for getting put on blacklists, managed by different departments at multiple levels to enforce rules within their jurisdiction, are not always clear. The targets are not always notified and given a chance to contest the listing

[…] The danger that the Chinese party-state may attempt to develop a global citizen score and start using opaque algorithms to determine one’s creditability for a variety of political as well as financial and regulatory purposes cannot be ruled out. China outlaws conduct such as reporting on protests, spreading online rumors, and growing “abnormal beards” in Xinjiang, and such offenses could certainly be used as a basis for imposing punishments under the social credit system. However, the Chinese party-state has many other tools to address public and political security issues. Moreover, given the diverse standards for assessing legal noncompliance and landing on any particular social credit blacklist, it would be challenging to devise a global score that would have a meaningful regulatory impact. [Source]

Read more on social credit from Daum, Creemers, and others, via CDT.