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China’s social credit system is actually quite boring

A supposedly Orwellian system is fragmented, localized, and mostly targeted at businesses, says Vincent Brussee.

China’s crackdown on Big Tech has put Beijing’s “digital authoritarianism” high on the global agenda. Its ever-growing surveillance apparatus, draconian restrictions on online gaming for minors, and calls to ban “sissy” content are real causes of concern; its draft regulations on algorithmic recommendation services in many ways is an example for the European Union and other regions. But the headlines fixated on China’s Orwellian controls exaggerated a much more mundane reality—most of the time.

China’s social credit system (SCS) is the best example. For years, the system has made headlines worldwide as a totem of China’s ruthless techno-authoritarianism—and, indeed, it has blacklisted an estimated 10 million citizens and companies. But this global narrative has ignored that the system was never designed to be an algorithm-driven, super-scoring system. There were local scoring systems that were widely conflated with the SCS. But they were wonky initiatives at the fringes of the system that today are constrained in what they do.

The Social Credit's System main aim is to improve the enforcement of legal and administrative rules

The SCS’s main aim is to improve the enforcement of legal and administrative rules. Food safety scandals are a recurring problem in China, as are workplace safety issues, wage arrears, and noncompliance with contracts and court orders. When it came to tackling these problems, there were laws in place, but enforcement was lackluster, and anyone who did get caught could simply go to the next province and reoffend. The SCS was meant to help by enabling data sharing between agencies and introducing nationwide blacklists to coerce offenders into compliance. Surveillance and repression of political dissidents or minorities were left to other, more invasive initiatives, such as the Golden Shield and Sharp Eyes projects.

Nonetheless, the system did have digital ambitions. In 2018 and 2019, central authorities named 28 demonstration cities that were meant to show the rest of the country the SCS’s future. Many of these municipalities, including Alibaba’s hometown of Hangzhou, China, talked up technologies like artificial intelligence and were eager to pair up with Big Tech to give the government new powers. But data from these cities shows the SCS has not given them techno-superpowers. Instead, China’s enormous bureaucracy is still struggling with familiar and deep-rooted challenges to bring the SCS’s more lofty ambitions to life.

Contrary to common belief, the cities mainly target companies, not individuals. Nonetheless, legal representatives of a violating company are also included in the blacklists to prevent reoffending elsewhere or under a different company. Nationally, about 75 percent of entities targeted by the system end up on blacklists because of court orders they have ignored—the so-called judgment defaulters. The remaining companies are typically collared for severe marketplace violations—for instance, for food safety infringements, environmental damage, or wage arrears. But much of these cities’ day-to-day use of the SCS is banal thanks to the system’s fragmentation and inflation of results.

Fragmentation is a symptom of central authorities being unclear about goals

Fragmentation is a symptom of central authorities being unclear about goals and how to reach them. This gives local authorities leeway to implement policies in creative or self-serving ways, producing numerous quirky experiments. During China’s first COVID-19 wave, the city of Anqing logged one blacklisting in excruciating detail, as our research found. At a checkpoint, “the culprit” refused to follow the advice of Chinese Communist Party members on duty, used a pair of pliers to cut through a fence that blocked the road and threw it off to the side. This led “the [Chinese Communist] Party flagpole on the fence to be bent across the road” and “the offender then [driving] over the flagpole, causing the party flagpole to be damaged. The damaged items were worth RMB 20.”

And there are many other examples. Putian, China, uses the SCS to publicize and reward famous brands (without any clear relation to their “creditworthiness”) and publishes a unique social credit “whitelist.” Ningbo’s environmental bureau blacklists companies that “have received criticism in the media and failed to correct their actions.” Wuhan officials said the city has issued SCS rewards to 240,000 citizens. Rongcheng takes the prize for the most brow-furrowing experiment: Volunteers snoop on neighbors, who lose points for failing to clear snow from their porches, quarreling with neighbors, and so on. (The central government has since said scoring should not be used to punish citizens.)

Inflation of data and accompanying propaganda are meant to make the system look more effective than it really is. Chinese authorities regularly flaunt their success in implementing the SCS. For instance, by mid-2020, the 28 cities claimed to have collected a combined 10 billion pieces of data, more than 70 data points per capita. Anqing has reported almost 400 departments are feeding data into the system, and the Supreme People’s Court reckons the SCS has helped recover 17.08 billion ($2.66 billion) in funds from judgment defaulters.

Local authorities have many incentives to inflate data, making the value of their figures questionable. Eye-catching numbers reflect favorably on those in charge and can usher in the next promotion. But there is no discernible relationship between data gathered and SCS implementation; in fact, the more data a city gathers, the less it appears to blacklist. In Anqing, one department is responsible for 90 percent of data uploads. Many departments in Hefei upload no more than a hundred pieces of data a week—not very “big data” at all. One Chinese scholar has suggested some of these initiatives could become white elephants.

Ironically, the SCS’s main weakness stems from a lack of digitization and standardization, not from any surfeit. Fragmentation and inflation may seem innocent but have far-reaching consequences. Interpretative leeway means local cadres can misuse the system. One city blacklisted a citizen over online comments that supposedly caused a panic about a local COVID-19 outbreak. In a county in Inner Mongolia, parents were threatened with blacklisting for protesting against the enforcement of Mandarin-language curricula at local schools. And there is still little to prevent local officials from ignoring offenses by state-owned enterprises.

Ultimately, these challenges encumber the SCM with many of the challenges it sought to tackle in the first place. Rather than streamlining China’s bureaucracy into one comprehensive system, it remains split into thousands of local data islands. Rather than standardizing the enforcement of market regulations, many officials can still do as they please. Beijing is aware of these problems and has issued directives addressing them since 2019. But solving them will not be quick. These sober truths about the SCS suggest the world should up its efforts to look beyond China’s tech headlines and assess if ambitions really match reality.

This article was first published by Foreign Policy on September 15, 2021.