The West seems to have a fascination with Chinese government restrictions. In the past year, the Chinese Social Credit System seems to have received notable coverage in Western news media. While it is an interesting story about government restrictions, the story behind the coverage seems just as intriguing.
What is the Chinese Social Credit System
China first announced the “Social credit system” (社会信用体系) in 2014. The objective of the program is to monitor people’s behaviour, and encourage good behaviour while publicly condemning harmful ones.
In a government document they say the system is intended at “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.”
According to the documents, the “Social Credit System” will be fully implemented by 2020, but is currently being tested on a sample population in China. The system of course is mandatory.
The program is currently run by members of the city council, and private tech firms that extract personal data through undisclosed surveillance methods.
The way the system works is each person is allocated a score which can go up and down based on their behaviour. Some examples of good behaviour are exercising, reading, working; while infractions include G-walking, bad driving, buying way too many video games and such.
Since this program has already been implemented, some people are already suffering the consequences of a “low social credit.” The Chinese government has begun punishing people by restricting their ability to travel domestically and internationally. According to Business Insider, almost Nine million people have been denied purchase of a domestic flight ticket.
3 million others have been denied upgrades from an economy ticket to a business ticket because their score was too low.
A more amusing rendition of this government initiative is related to internet connection. If you post often on social media or play a lot of video-games your internet connection will be negatively affected.
Those who refuse to serve in the military are also subject to penalization. According to Beijing News, just last year, the Chinese government barred 17 people who didn’t complete their military service from enrolling in high school, university or post-graduate studies.
Parents with “low social credit” are also not allowed to enrol their children in prestigious private schools. However, there is still no track record of this policy being implemented.
Further, individuals who are deemed “Trust-breaking” are barred from being promoted to managerial positions in major banks, and state apparatus.
Perhaps the most debilitating aspect is its ‘blacklist’ policy. If someone has a below-par social credit score their name will be blacklisted on public lists companies used to examine potential employees.
Getting blacklisted entails being sent a written notice by the higher courts, but citizens can appeal the blacklist within 10 days. This still hasn’t widely been implemented.
A blacklist is currently being tested on a sample of the population. Lawyer Li Xiaolin ended up on the list back in 2015, and he was denied the right to purchase a plane ticket to go back to China after a work trip.
On the bright side, this list can also aid citizens in their pursuit of love. According to the BBC, Baihe, China’s biggest dating site boosts the profiles of ‘good’ citizens according to the government Social Credit System.
Why are these stories so significant to the West?
In the West, there tends to be a fascination with China’s control state and their surveillance policies. The Great Firewall Internet, mass surveillance, and suppression of speech are relatively common topics to the average North American. However, interestingly enough, they aren’t as discussed on Chinese news and social media.
In the last year alone, there have been over 160 million English-language results on Google when you search “China Social Credit System”. Google Trends claimed that interest in this topic peaked a little over a month ago, especially due to interest with ‘Black Mirror’, a British sci-fi series about the adverse effects of new technology.
By contrast, only 19.9 million results appear when you search the Chinese term for the Social Credit System (社会信用体系).
Now, many might attribute the low search results for the Chinese term to Google’s blocked status in China. However, it is reported that only 7.7 million results appear when you search the term on Baidu, China’s premier search engine.
It isn’t just interest in the topic that differs in both countries. There is a massive difference in the way in which both countries have commented on the matter on social media.
On Twitter, the social credit story went viral. About a week ago, the Economist published a two-minute video titled “How Does China’s Social Credit System Work?”. Before the Economist eventually removed the video, it had garnered over 275,000 views on Twitter. The video has a rather somber tone, discussing how the government gives each citizen a personal score ‘based on how they behave’ and alleges that the system will track “what they buy, view, say online”.
However, on Chinese social media, things are viewed slightly differently. Especially, if you see the outlook of Chinese netizens on Weibo (basically Chinese Twitter). Although the topic of the Social Credit System isn’t explicitly talked about, there are examples of trending topics that relate to the idea behind it. One example is the viral “Train Tyrants” video from August of this year.
In the video, a woman has taken a seat that belongs to another passenger. When confronted by the train conductor, she refuses to get up, speaks very rudely, and refuses to change he seat until they reached Shenzhen (the train’s eventual destination).
With Over 600 million views on Weibo, the story became one of the biggest of the year. When the news came out that the woman had been fined and banned from Chinese railways, the commenters not only approved, but claimed the state response was too lenient. Many in the comment section claimed that her behavior should be linked to the social credit systems and that she should face further punishment to discourage bad actions. They claim that those who are affected by the Social Credit System only have themselves to blame for their poor choices.
Essentially, the video the Economist made seems to play into fears many of the West have of government suppression. In American culture (and Western culture more broadly), there has always been a strongly held fear that the government will stifle freedom. Historically, books such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” highlight the ways in which society fears technological advancement at the hands of the state. In the modern era, shows like ‘Black Mirror’ highlight the ways in which our society fears technology used to control them.
In many ways, the way Chinese surveillance is presented in the media reflects people’s worst nightmares: that the government will watch and judge their every move. The freedom of the individual tends to be emphasized more than the well-being of the collective.
As a result, you will see these CCP state initiatives being described as “creepy”, “scary”, “numbing”, etc. by Western journalists.
For the population in China, life is viewed more from the perspective of the collective, rather than the individual. If a person’s bad actions (even if minor) negatively impact society, it is only fair that he should face punitive measures. However, in terms of cases such as rudeness or ‘trust breaking’, this can be vague and confusing. If someone is blacklisted due to a low Social Credit Score, it is a failure of personal responsibility, rather than an infringement on freedom. As long as people act well, they have nothing to fear right?
A 32-year-old entrepreneur, who only gave his name as Chen, told Foreign Policy: “I feel like in the past six months, people’s behaviour has gotten better and better.
“For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points.
“At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”