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#74 Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (II)

The version of the ‘social credit system’ proposed in 2002 was comparable to FICO scores in the U.S. or SCHUFA scores in Germany – financial systems designed to assess creditworthiness of individuals.

Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (II)

Von Mao bis Hu Jintao: Teil II des Gastbeitrags von Zaya Chinbat zu den historischen Wurzeln von Chinas Sozialpunktesystems. Teil I:

#73 Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (I) [Gastbeitrag]

4. The People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party (1949- present)

The Mao Zedong Era (1943-76)

Following in the precedents established by their imperial predecessors, the rise to power of Mao Zedong “ushered in a new era of censorship” (Economy, 2019, p.60). Access to foreign literature and media was only accessible to party elites, no academic journals were published for over six years, publishing houses closed, and regulations on the “prevention and suppression of rumour” were introduced (ibid). As the CCP began to narrow the flow of information from outside, the work of securing and inventorying surviving archives began.

In 1950 the Central Military Commission issued an edict prohibiting “plundering and profiteering” from archival documents. The following year “Provisional Rules for Protecting State Secrets” and “Provisional Rules for Managing Public Documents” were adopted by the CCP Central Committee and the Secretariat of the PRC Central Administrative Council. It was not until 1959 that the Party Central Committee decided to put party and state records under one system and new regulations regarding the management of archives were introduced (Moss, 1996, p.115). Even during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), certain archival records received a measure of protection: Zhou Enlai issued instructions to “protect state secrets and confidential documents and archives” and Red Guards were instructed not to go into archival stack areas (Moss, 1996, p.115).

Tasked with the implementation of Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the party organized work units (danwei), with any dissent recorded in their personnel file (Dang’an). During this period the Dang’an or personal files’ system was eventually expanded to include not only officials’ files but also that of average citizens. Its role revolved around “totalizing control in Mao’s era, [which] helped create a political culture of fear and uncertainty that marked the bodies of its subjects to the point of haunting them” (Yang, 2011, p. 508). The system was managed unevenly with emphasis placed on “urban, industrial and governmental cadres” (Jiang, 2020). These files contain data subjects’ personal information, family background, job history, achievements, shortcomings, political activities and superiors’ evaluations.

For those seeking employment in government, state-owned enterprises and banks, having an unsullied record on their personal files is a requirement. Hence, the Dang’an system operates as part of the “socialist techno-scientific reasoning that attempted to make people…instruments of the state to achieve various political, economic, and social objectives” (Yang, 2011, p.518). Ultimately, “the [Dang’an] dossier is only one feature of long-institutionalized and pervasive administrative systems of behavioural control and surveillance in daily life that bestow honours on some and punishments on others” (Zuboff, 2019, p. 393).

The Deng Xiaoping Era (1976-1990)

Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng Xiaoping ascended to power in 1978 and launched reforms to transform the country’s political and economic systems. The goals set forth in the “Four Modernizations” consisted of decentralization of central party control and transformations in key sectors of agriculture, industry, defence, science and technology.

The 1980’s were marked by a loosening of the state’s control over the private sector and introduction of policies that encouraged market-driven economy as part of “Reform and Opening Up”. Provincial and local officials had fewer constraints from the central government, foreign direct investment and trade encouraged participation from the international community. Following the reforms “average growth rates exceeded 8 percent annually for more than two decades-elevating hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty” (Economy, 2018, p.7).

The management of Dang’an files continued to be performed by the state, governed by China’s National Archive Law passed in 1987. The following year archival work resumed in earnest following the restoration of the State Archives Bureau. The latter was closely integrated into the CCP Central Committee and PRC State Council structures (China’s chief administrative authority, chaired by the Chinese premier overseeing 25 ministers). The State Archives Bureau in Beijing presides over the entire archival system with its director-general reporting to both the General Office of the Party Central Committee and to the General Office of the State Council of the PRC. Archives management cuts across and works with all party and state ministries, commissions and agencies.

An urban citizen’s Dang’an might contain their entire life history starting from elementary school until college to their current workplace. Most urban Chinese citizens have two Dang’an files: one at their workplace and another one at the local police station. In essence, the utilizing this coded system “for various purposes such as job transfers, promotions, party membership, and passport applications, the ruling party laces the Dang’an together with the bureaucratic system to control the mobility, welfare, and social ranking, as well as the social and political identities, of the urban population” (Yang, 2011, p.510).

Jiang Zemin (1990 – 2005) and the Social Credit Score

In 1978, at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping era reforms, China accounted for 2.5 percent of the world economy, its impact on the world economy was minimal with its share of the world’s goods export consisting of a mere 0.8 percent (World Bank, 1980). However, by the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, China’s economy already accounted for 6 percent of the world economy and its share of the global exports had risen to 8.7 percent (World Bank, 2009). Under President Jiang Zemin, who became the general secretary of the Communist Party in 1989 and president of the country in 1993, China continued to ‘open up’ further: Chinese businessmen (and they were predominantly men), were welcomed into the party for the first time, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and China’s state owned enterprises were encouraged to seek out natural resources to continue to fuel its economy (Economy, 20019, p.7).

The transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy required bureaucratic accommodation and a shift in administrative thinking that recast Chinese citizens as relatively free agents in China’s rising entrepreneurial capitalism (Yang, 2011, p.509). Subsequently, starting from the mid-1990s, the government introduced a significant relaxation of the Dang’an system as an expanding market economy demanded more flexible labor (Sigley, 2004). The Dang’an system in its old reincarnation became increasingly obsolete as the number of private companies increased and provided alternative sources of employment, where a potential employee’s Dang’an containing an unflattering evaluation from decades ago was less likely to have been seen as an obstacle to employment (Kristof, 1992).

It was in this context of economic liberalization and China’s economic outward extension that the SCS is first mentioned officially in a speech by President Jiang Zemin. In an annual report to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Jiang Zemin stated that China must “establish a social credit system compatible with a modern market economy” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2002).

The ‘social credit system’ as it was proposed then looked comparable to FICO scores in the U.S. or SCHUFA scores in Germany-systems designed to assess creditworthiness of individuals. In the State Council’s Guiding Opinions Concerning the Construction of a Social Credit System (2007), the government emphasized the importance of financial creditworthiness and trustworthiness.

Hu Jintao (2005 – 2013) and the Citizen Morality Files

Hu Jintao called for promoting “traditional” Chinese culture and made multiple references to the “great revival of the Chinese nation” (Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing), (a phrase later repeated by incoming CCP General-Secretary Xi Jinping in his own remarks to the Party Congress). During Hu Jintao’s tenure the Chinese government continued to emphasize the SCS as a tool for assessing financial creditworthiness as stated in the State Council’s 2007 Guiding Opinions Concerning the Construction of a Social Credit System.

In addition to the Dang’an system a concept of “citizen morality files” (gongmin daode dang’an) was underway in 2006 in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Under this trial program by a local authority, ‘moral deeds’ were recorded under 10 separate categories including being “polite and civilized, honest and trustworthy” (Bray, 2006, p. 545), with awards being distributed to those individuals with the most points. A similar program to enforce community morality standards was also launched in 2009 in Pujiang County, Zhejiang Province (Jiang, 2020, p. 4). However, it is important to note that in this context the “nature and functions of community are determined by the government that performs a largely administrative role and has a clearly demarcated territorial space” (Bray, 2006, p.534). The initiative was short-lived despite a steering committee of ‘morality inspectors’, selected through exams being responsible for the distribution of awards and punishments, as public officials themselves were exempt from the program leading to significant public criticism (Chu, 2012).

Notably, “the latter years of Hu Jintao’s tenure witnessed a remarkable rise in the use of the internet as a mechanism by which Chinese citizens held their officials accountable” (Economy, 2019, p.66). Internet activism in China exploded during the final years of Hu Jintao’s tenure. Chinese netizens began to engage in lively political discourse, to gain access to the world outside China, and to organize themselves to protest against perceived injustices (Economy, 2019, p. 71). Many of those injustices concerned the revelations of a wide array of abuses of the dang’an system by public officials ranging from selling off the files of top scoring students (LaFraniere, the NYT, 2009), entries motivated by personal vendettas that had serious career consequences (Hille, The FT, 2009), to the overall haunting effect of being subjected to such repeated state evaluation (Jacobs, The NYT, 2015).

As the digital sphere (e-commerce, distance learning, e-healthcare etc.) continued to expand, the CCP set up the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) in 2011, as well as the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization – marking a significant attempt by the “Chinese government to try to control and ‘reshape’ the Internet, for the safety of the Chinese regime (Xiao Qiang, 2014, Chinafile).

> Part III: China’s Social Credit Score in Xi Jinping’s “new Era”China’s Social Credit Score in Xi Jinping’s “new Era”


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