One explanation could simply be that wealthier and better-educated urban respondents are more technology-savvy and interpret social credit systems as a technological advancement. However, in our recent study we propose a different interpretation. Higher educated and wealthier citizens, particularly in urban areas, have access to a wider range of benefits offered via social credit systems, such as deposit-free sharing economy services, fast-tracked check-ins for hotels, and mobile payment options. Social credit systems are viewed through a particularly positive lens by respondents with access to these benefits that contribute to a convenient and attractive lifestyle.
Social credit protects consumers, holds companies accountable
The survey results further show that wealthier, higher educated, urban respondents perceive social credit systems as an instrument to close institutional and regulatory gaps, leading to more honest and law-abiding behavior in society, and less as an instrument of surveillance. In line with this, interviewees were also conceivably less concerned that social credit systems provide data for purposes of social control since many assume that the Chinese security apparatus is able to access any such information already.
One such institutional gap as identified by respondents is China’s underdeveloped financial credit rating system, which has made it difficult for households to access credit. Commercial social credit systems such as Sesame Credit are seen as valuable as they offer banking services with attractive interest rates for loans and savings accounts for users with high scores.
In addition, social credit systems are seen to address regulatory enforcement issues ranging from food safety and non-compliance with environmental regulations to a growing number of internet scams. For instance, in a context of frequent food safety scandals, local government pilots such as Honest Shanghai offer users additional information to check whether restaurants are “trustworthy” and abide by food safety regulations. For example, 72 percent of survey respondents stated that their purchasing decisions were influenced by the social credit assessment of the company offering the products or services. Hence, social credit systems are seen as a helpful means to making things work and improving quality of life.
System’s future success will depend on transparency and fairness
The findings show that for many citizens, the assumption that private company pilots use fair and transparent methods to create social credit scores is a significant predictor of approval for social credit systems. Yet currently, the algorithms used to calculate individual scores are not known. As the SCS systems are advancing, more transparency in how the scores are calculated and weighted will be crucial for public support. Fairness will be the other major issue. In interviews, respondents expressed concerns over what they perceived as unfair scoring methods, with some worrying that the same standards might not apply to “people in powerful positions.” One interviewee pointed out the difficulties in repairing a low credit score after an extended period of sickness or personal (financial) difficulties.
Future developments of the pilot projects and of the joint enforcement of rewards and punishment will impact how the systems are perceived in the future. As the social credit system advances, consequences will become more far-reaching. Once citizens find that they are unable to understand how assessments of (un)trustworthiness are made or experience unfairness, it is unlikely that approval remains as high as observed in this survey.
The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.