China's social credit system: Orwellian nightmare or a modern take on credit scores?

Posters of citizens with good scores on display in Rongcheng, Shandong. (Photo Alliance)

The speed with which China grew to become the world's second largest economy has caused a problem for hundreds of millions of citizens: they have no credit history.

While this might not seem like a big deal, it becomes one when a person wants to buy a home or car. Unless they're paying cash, they need a loan. And without credit, they can't get one.

Chinese banks are notoriously hesitant to lend money to citizens and private businesses, leading many to turn to online payday loan-style lenders.

So, the question is: how can you know whether someone will repay their debts if they have no meaningful financial history?

The answer: look at their criminal record. Look at their online activity. Look at their personal life.

Do they play video games late at night? Do they pay their bills on time? Do they have trustworthy friends? Those questions and more play into a burgeoning system of pilot programs across China that may create the country's own version, or versions, of a credit score.

One could argue that, in addition to a history of someone's credit card statements, a modern take on the traditional credit score would include a person's criminal record and job history. However, China has taken it a step further by resurrecting social surveillance mechanisms dating from the Mao era.

Variations on social credit are currently being tested in small trials across the country, by both the government and large businesses. The consequences of these programs have not been isolated to lending and credit-- they've been used to prohibit those with low scores from traveling, enrolling their children in private schools, and the chance to apply for a government job. They've also given others access to cheap loans, free health checkups, easy access to bike sharing platforms, and expedited visa applications.

While partly built to fill the country's credit history void, the social credit system is also designed to measure, reward and punish people based on their behavior.

In some government pilot programs, jaywalkers have been publicly shamed. In Hebei, the Higher People's Court developed Deadbeat Map, a mini-application inside WeChat that allows people to see the locations of nearby debtors in real time. And in Pu'an, debtors are applied a ringback tone that plays whenever anyone calls them, saying: "Hello, Pu'an County People's Court reminds you that the person you have dialed has been included in the list of discredited individuals, please be careful if you associate with him!"

It's impossible to know what parts of the test programs will be adopted nationwide. Many are not overly concerned. In some government pilots, citizens say their quality of life has gone up since the credit score was introduced. In Rongcheng, some citizens told Foreign Policy that people drive more considerately, and property prices have gone up.

"At worst, China's social-credit system will simply reproduce the problems of the existing system, complete with all the chaos and corruption it was designed to stamp out," David Fickling wrote in Bloomberg earlier this year.

Citizens' relative indifference to social credit may reflect China's history with social engineering. Shazeda Ahmed, a PhD student at Berkeley and Fullbright scholar, argues that China has monitored and tracked citizens' behavior for decades, and the social credit system is an expansion of the blacklists of the past.

The system's expansion to the online world, however, makes avoiding punishment more difficult. Ahmed writes:

Previously, people who could not purchase airline tickets through official channels if they were blacklisted might have still managed to use websites like CTrip.com or the in-app travel booking feature of the mobile wallet service Alipay to circumvent these restrictions. That is no longer possible.

Furthermore, the wholesale endorsement of surveillance in China leads others to believe that the social credit system could eventually enable an environment that resembles Xinjiang today, where people are relentlessly tracked and monitored, with the state security aparatus weaponized against them.

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