China's social ranking system not so crazy after all

A new report recently revealed that tens of millions of Chinese citizens have been blocked from purchasing train and plane tickets. The travelers were restricted because of their low scores on China’s so-called “social credit system.” Along with Beijing’s loving embrace of artificial intelligence-powered surveillance tech, many in the West have portrayed the country’s social credit experiment as signs of an emerging dystopian communist technocracy.

In a speech last October, Vice President Pence was harshly critical of the new system. Pence labeled it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”

As with many things, the reality isn’t quite as simple as these alarmist narratives would lead you to believe. The implementation of the Chinese social credit system feels disconcerting to Westerners, but it isn’t as nefarious as it is being portrayed.

In fact, a Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) report released last year found the social credit system is “highly popular” among Chinese people. The country’s wealthiest and best-educated citizens are especially happy with the new initiative. Here are a few other common misapprehensions about China’s social credit score program.

Social Credit Check

One common misconception about the system is that it assigns citizens a single social score that controls all aspects of their lives. However, as of now at least, there is no single, government-issued social credit score. According to Foreign Policy magazine, only “A few dozen towns and cities in China, as well as private companies” utilize social credit systems. But Beijing has yet to fully outline, much less implement, a national social ranking system.

In a lot of respects, the current iteration of China’s program isn’t dissimilar from the American system of credit checks. Experion, TransUnion, and Equifax may show you slightly different credit scores based on a variety of factors. Likewise, the various Chinese credit programs calculate their scores based largely on financial information rather than social behavior.

And let’s be honest, U.S. credit systems also use financial patterns to gain behavioral insights. People who spend sensibly are rewarded with new lines of credit. Someone who has recklessly run up debt without repayment will not receive the same consideration. Both America and China link character with credit.

More to the Score

Bing Song, director of the Berggruen Institute China Center, made a notable observation about the Chinese government’s social credit system when it was announced in 2014. “It involved four distinct segments,” wrote Song. “A government trust system, a commercial credit system, a social trust system and a judicial trust system.”

Taken as a whole, the system is about accountability for everyone. It applies to not just individual citizens but corporations and the government itself. As Song explains, China launched the program as part of a broader initiative to bolster social trust. Song asserts the Chinese initiative is intended to reduce political corruption, curb corporate malfeasance and make the courts more efficient.

As the wealth of the average Chinese citizen has grown in recent years, so have incidents of fraud and corruption. The government does assign a social credit score to businesses to provide regulatory compliance and public transparency. Foreign Policy magazine reports the government sanctions firms with low scores. Moreover, Beijing is putting untrustworthy firms on a publically accessible blacklist database called Credit China.

Cultural Misappropriation

The final component of confusion about the system may come down to semantics and cultural differences. As Foreign Policy magazine pointed out, “The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) does not provide credit scores or assessments with its standard reports.”

But the regional and commercial system does. The conflagration of the two systems may have arisen because of media mistranslation of the phrase “xinyong zhengxin.” The press has frequently interpreted the term to mean “credit scoring,” but a more contextually accurate translation would be “credit reporting.”

It’s also important to remember the collectivist nature of Chinese culture. As Song notes, “China’s governance tradition of promoting good moral behavior goes back thousands of years.” Most Americans would recoil at the thought of a government-sanctioned social scoring initiative. However, many Chinese people feel it’s a powerful tool toward social cohesion.

The MERICS report on the program supports this interpretation. “Rather than perceiving [social credit scores] as instruments of surveillance, [citizens] see them as a way to protect consumers.”

There are reasons to be concerned China’s social credit system is an extension of its government’s long autocratic reach. For example, there are reports of some students being excluded from schools and universities based on their parents’ low credit scores.

Indeed, techno surveillance is certainly Orwellian, but so is blindly accepting misinformation about a foreign government.

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