The Internet has become the main battlefield for the public opinion struggle. Some comrades say that the Internet is the “largest variable” that we face, and if we get it wrong, it will become “a worry in our hearts and minds”.
Xi Jinping on the Internet, leaked speech from August 2013.
Roots of China’s Social Credit Score, Part III, by Zaya Chinbat
The Xi Jinping era, (2013 – present)
Xi Jinping’s selection to the role of the general secretary in 2012 marked the first time in the preceding two-and-a-half decades that the general secretary of the CCP had not been hand-picked by Deng Xiaoping. Having become president of China in the spring of the following year he called for the promotion of “traditional” Chinese culture and like his predecessor Hu, made multiple references to the “great revival of the Chinese nation” (Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing, 中华民族伟大复兴), proclaiming that “the great revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern history” (Xinhua, 2012).
Despite ideological continuity, Xi Jinping’s presidency is characterized by significant departures in governance styles from his predecessors of the Deng Xiaoping era. Namely, the accumulation of institutional powers embodied in his position as general secretary of the party, president of the country (after the successful abolition of the two-term limit for presidency), lifelong chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and numerous leading groups responsible for shaping policy. Under Xi, policies have been introduced to re-assert the party into everyday political and economic life, e.g. through the expansion of the state surveillance apparatus and the extension of the Social Credit Score (SCS).
Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era
Reflecting this amassing of power, Xi has been elevated to the status of the ‘core’ (hexin, 核心) of the political leadership in October 2016 at the Fifth Plenum of the 18th National Congress of the CCP. The enshrinement of the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” the following year at the 19th Party Congress granted “his ideas the same status as those of Mao in the party constitution” (Economy, 2018, p.24).
Subsequently, a government produced phone application “Study the Great Nation” (xuexi qiangguo, 学习强国) was rolled out labelled as an education tool, to enable the study of Xi Jinping Thought. It quickly amassed over 100 million users, with the Huawei store reporting 300 million downloads, and Wadoujia (another online app store) reporting 195 million downloads at the time. The application maintains a “level of access that no [other] app[lication] would normally have over a user’s device” and maintains an “extensive user data collection and transmission” (Open Technology Fund, 2019).
Measures to limit the role of the international community in China have also been implemented, such as the 2017 Law on Management of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs), which moved the control over NGO’s from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security. By 2018, the number of foreign NGO’s registered in China had fallen from over 7,000 to fewer than 541, as of 24th August 2020 (China File, China NGO Project, 2020). The most significant domestic economic initiative to emerge from Xi’s government is “Made in China 2025″, which consists of “localizing and indigenizing technologies and brands, substituting foreign technologies, and capturing global market share” (Economy, 2018, p.119) in ten key sectors.
The Internet: main battlefield for the public opinion struggle
Xi Jinping’s practice of asserting personal control over state institutions extends to the governance of the internet. In a leaked 2013 speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference he had stated: “The Internet has become the main battlefield for the public opinion struggle. Some comrades say that the Internet is the ‘largest variable’ that we face, and if we get it wrong, it will become “a worry in our hearts and minds” (Xiao Qiang, 2014, Chinafile).
By 2014, Xi Jinping had assumed Chairmanship of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and elevated the stature of the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) by transforming it into the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Subsequently, in 2019, the CAC drafted a new law, extending the SCS to cover online information and speech (Credit China, 2019). As with the Dang’an files and the morality files, this reassertion of online control embodies “systemic efforts to impose top-down, predefined notions of civility and public morality, such as the socialist core value system” (Creemers, 2016, p.14).
Management of both domestic and international public opinions are essential components of this process and the government has relied on commercial enterprises to “manage volatile interaction between ideas, speech, and society” (Batke, Ohlberg, Dec, 2020). This is evidenced in an analysis of publicly available Chinese government procurement notices for public opinion monitoring software and services by state officials across China between 2007-2020 (ibid).
The shift in power dynamics with China under Xi – led by his ambitious signature infrastructure project the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, a cultural genocide in Xinjiang, suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong – have all contributed to a distorted coverage of the SCS in US and European media as a dystopian instrument of authoritarian control.
However, the SCS should rather be analyzed as a tech-enabled innovation, designed to compensate for weak institutions and borne out of the necessity to increase statecraft efficiency (Aho & Duffield, 2020, p.10). Moreover, the vastly different heterogeneous and experimental nature of different SCS pilot programs pose challenges to researchers not only because it is an ongoing endeavor but also because “both public and private sectors loosely fall under its purview” (Zhang, 2020, p.2).
The following part will clarify some common misconceptions.
China’s Social Credit Score: Fact vs Fiction
The conceptual framework of the SCS is for market participants – be they individuals, corporations, or agencies – to be assessed on their ‘trustworthiness’ and rewarded or punished accordingly. It is best understood as a “management system that takes big data as its basis, is supported by technological capacities, and is backed by law [legal provisions]; it is an important modern method to forward the country’s governance systems and management capabilities” (Luo, 2016).
In 2014 the State Council issued the main document containing an outline to build a national social credit system (SCS) in six years-the “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014–2020)”. A nationwide SCS, in the shape of a policy (rather than a centralized database as has been often erroneously reported) was stated “to improve the integrity and trust level of the whole society” (State Council, 2014). The document also reaffirmed and elaborated on the concept of chengxin / 诚信 (trustworthiness), conceptualised as consisting of: honesty in government affairs (政务诚信/zhengwu chengxin), commercial integrity (商务诚信/shangwu chengxin), honesty in society (社会诚信/shehui chengxin), and judicial credibility (司法诚信/sifa gongxin), thus signifying the importance of the SCS as a vital instrument of not only the socialist market economy but social governance as well (CCCPC, 2011).
Three main aspects of China’s SCS
The system itself consists of three aspects: 1. financial credit reporting, (predicting the ability to repay loans), 2. regulatory information from administrative agencies for informing the public (particularly relevant for corporations and commercial enterprises), and lastly, 3. publicity and education (credit worthiness and trustworthiness/honesty), which is loosely defined and has enabled some local governments to experiment with assessing individuals’ honesty.
Data that comprises social credit files, which are compiled on companies and citizens does not come from social media posts, e-commerce, facial recognition feeds or any other automated feeds, rather they consist of government records that existed prior to the existence of the social credit. The government acts as a data administrator and data collector of existing records e.g. taxation records, which are then processed into standardised datasets for use by assessment via accredited institutions such as banks.
The People’s Bank of China (PBOC)-China’s central bank and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a macroeconomic management governmental agency under the State Council, are the main institutions tasked with overseeing and coordinating the implementation of the SCS. The main tools of SCS are administrative- such as existing public records to “ensure compliance with legal and contractual obligations” (Daum, 2019) with the state’s goal being a system in which legal and regulatory compliance can be monitored effectively with the help of information technology (Creemers, 2018).
Most of the goals set out in the 2014 policy documents for the 2020 deadline have been met, these include: government agencies creating regulations for a ‘blacklist’ system for serious violations, government agencies creating their own SCS criteria for each industry e.g. food and drug safety, and joint agency punishments, meaning increased intra-industry scrutiny for rule violators e.g. potential rule-violators of food and safety regulations can receive closer scrutiny by the environmental protection agencies as well.
The National Financial Credit System
As outlined in Part II the first mention of a “social credit” in national policy documents related to a financial credit system for assessing creditworthiness-processes designed to contain financial information such as the number of credit cards, mortgage history, and delayed payment. The PBOC designs and implements a nationwide governmental financial credit system. Following China’s economic liberalization and deregulation of the 1990’s and within a context of widespread corporate malfeasance, policy makers were left with a dilemma of coming up with mechanisms that simultaneously enforce the law and inform market participants of reputable and trustworthy commercial actors.
The system under the PBOC collects most of their data from banks and other financial institutions that are only used in the financial field by lenders (Liu, 2019). The PBOC has also “been especially skeptical of the use of xinyong beyond financial and economic contexts” (Zhang, 2020). However, The financial credit system was proposed as an administrative tool for banks to extend credit for those ‘left behind’-namely rural populations, who never had a bank account or a mortgage.
Commercial Credit and Scoring
The digitization of the Chinese economy has been rapid: by 2017 China was home to 731 million internet users and 695 million mobile internet users, and Chinese consumers were responsible for 40 percent of the value of all global e-commerce transactions (Woetzel et al, 2017). The domestic (and global) e-commerce market is dominated by China’s tech giants.
In 2015 the government granted licenses on a trial basis to eight commercial tech companies to build their own individual credit rating and score systems. The trial included the Sesame Credit Score, built by Alibaba’s Ant Financial, which has over 800 million users across its e-commerce and mobile payment platforms and Tencent, a global tech giant. These commercial reincarnations of the SCS by domestic tech companies have not only helped normalise the accumulation of users’ data for assessment, but users were often enticed by potential rewards, be it access to portable power bank rentals (Liao, 2019) or video game bonuses (Hood, 2018). The trial ended in 2017, with none of the eight companies having their licenses renewed and the PBOC citing “lack of data sharing across different platforms, conflicts of interests, and lack of understanding of what should be considered as credit” (Wu and Sun 2018).
The following year the National Internet Finance Association of China (NIFA) (a functionary of the PBOC), backed the launching of Baihang Credit- the only commercial entity licensed to provide personal credit scores. The eight tech companies that had participated in the government’s trial were brought on as shareholders with each holding 8 percent of the shares and NIFA holding the remaining 36 percent. However, three of the eight companies, including Tencent and Alibaba have been reluctant to share control of their users’ data with the government, valuable data that relates to loan transactions in particular (Yang, Liu, 2019). So far, this data remains in the hands of the private sector and it remains to be seen for how long given that over 700 microlending institutions have signed on to share their users’ data with Baihang Credit as of April 2019 (China Banking News, 2019).
There is a growing body of literature that suggests digital footprints of consumers are accurate (and hence-valuable tools) for assessing creditworthiness. Using more than 250,000 observations, Berg et al. (2019) show that combining credit scores and digital footprints improves loan default predictions and the incorporation of non-financial data can significantly increase efficiency in assessing lender risk. Moreover, tech companies with large customer bases have the capacity to outperform traditional banks in financial service provision, in Alibaba’s case it extended more credit in China’s rural areas where presence of banks remains limited (Boot et al., 2020).
Data privacy & protection of personal information by law
More recently, state regulators began taking an increasingly hardline stance against China’s tech giants, most notably, Ant Financial, accusing the company of non-compliance with government regulations, halting its record-breaking share listing and subjecting its sister company Alibaba to an anti-monopoly investigation (Zhong, NYT, 2020). According to recent reports, the regulators are applying pressure on Ant Financial to share their 1 billion users’ data on “consumers’ spending habits, borrowing behaviors and bill- and loan-payment histories” (Lingling Wei, 2021). Previously, three Chinese internet companies: Alibaba, China Literature (a business spun off from Tencent) and HiveBox had been fined under China’s 2008 Anti-Monopoly Law, reflecting a similar ‘techlash’ in the US, such as a US bipartisan congressional investigation on Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple’s practices, which accused the companies of engaging in anti-competitive, monopolistic tactics (Romm, Zakrzewski and Lerman, 2020).
It is worth noting, however, that on the consumer protection front the 2017 Cybersecurity Law remains the most authoritative law protecting personal information. However, the Personal Information Security Specification, which took effect in May 2018, is the most effective mechanism of an emerging system around personal data protection (Shi et al, 2019). The overall current legal framework on data protection and privacy in China had initially set on a “path resembling the U.S. minimalist approach and now shows significant signs of convergence with the more stringent and comprehensive EU model”- the General Data Protection Regulation (Pernot-Leplay, 2020).
The US has yet to adopt data privacy laws at the federal level, however both China’s adoption of the SCS and data protection legislation and the European Union’s adoption of the GDPR provide an example for comparative analysis given the vastly different normative agendas. The SCS is construed upon the transfer of data surveillance from the private sector to the public sector, whereas the GDPR is a product of normative aims centered around protection of individual right to privacy.
Like elsewhere, numerous examples demonstrate that data privacy has become an increasing concern among Chinese citizens. A landmark legal case against the use of a facial recognition system in Hangzhou by a commercial operator is being appealed at the high court (Ye, 2020). After several incidents which provoked a public backlash, the CAC had to issue a statement warning entities collecting data for contact tracing to safeguard it from being stolen or leaked online (CAC, 2020). And a proposed ‘civility score’ in Suzhou, a city in the eastern Jiangsu province, faced significant public criticism, forcing the local officials to clarify that the participation would not be mandatory (Xinyu, 2020).
The SCSs have also come under greater scrutiny from the public, with over 70% netizens responding that that the concept of social credit is unnecessarily generalized and is vulnerable to abuse by authorities in a poll by the state-run media (Xinhua, 2020).
Nationwide blacklists & redlists
The use of the SCS under the NDRC utilises a different approach from the PBOC-it designs the implementation of state agency and municipal “discredited subject blacklist” and “credited redlist” (shouxin hongmindan). Redlists publicise companies with ‘good’ compliance records and blacklists with poor records. Currently, no centralised single blacklist or redlist exists, rather different systems are in operation simultaneously, depending on the jurisdiction of the various agencies and municipal governments. For example, the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (CCAC) or the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) have their own industry wide criteria for violations that may lead to an individual being put on their blacklists.
The SCS in this instance acts as a mechanism to support the enforcement of court decisions against individuals, corporations and NGOs and often relate to cases of nonpayment of debts. Arguably, the most well-known nationwide blacklist is the People’s Supreme Court’s blacklist but all “courts, from local to the supreme, are the main institutions in determining who should be put on the [judgment defaulters’] list”, launched in 2013 (Liu 2019).
Municipal Social Credit Systems
At a local level, the implementation of the SCSs vary by scope, depth and depend on the interpretations of what constitutes ‘trustworthiness’ and ‘credit’ within their local jurisdiction by the local government. In 2015, when the pilot program with the eight tech companies started, both the NDRC and the PBOC also authorized forty three pilot cities and districts to test SCSs (Meissner, 2017).
Municipal governments have been given leeway to experiment and sources of data, types and quantity of indicators and sets of punishments. At an institutional level municipal governments may find it easier to coordinate between local government agencies, usually via a central local SCS office (Liu 2019). The number and criteria of indicators used to assess trustworthiness in Roncheng, Shandong (the first city to launch the SCS after the 2014 Planning Outline was issued) are different from the ones being implemented in Ordos, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), which started its pilot later in 2019. The level of enforcement also varies, if most municipal governments use pre-existing governmental rules and regulations, some may employ a more experimental approach such as policing moral behavior-‘conducting activities of superstition’ in Rongcheng, can result in a deduction of 10 points out of 1000 on it SCS metric (Liu, 2019).
More recently, following the introduction of a ‘bilingual education’ program in the IMAR, which replaced the Mongolian language with Chinese in half of the Mongolian school classes (Su 2020), parents who abstained from sending their children to school in protest were warned of being placed on an “untrustworthy persons list”. The repercussions of being on such a list included restrictions on jobs, special market transactions, cross-border travels, home reconstruction and other activities, which require good social credit standing (Su 2020).
… and modern surveillance technologies
The implementation of the SCSs is partly assisted by the extensive use of surveillance technologies. 34 out of 50 cities with the highest number of CCTV cameras in the world are located in China and 54 percent of the world’s estimated 770 million surveillance cameras are situated in the country (Bischoff, 2019). However, the use of surveillance technologies is used much more extensively in another area – predictive policing and encompasses collection of a wide array of biometric data such as compiling of DNA databases, including of those who have not been convicted of a crime (WSJ, 2017). These practices are especially entrenched in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The Uyghur ethnic minorities in the region are subjected to multiplied surveillance: a big data surveillance program-Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), predictive policing and social credit scoring (Wang, 2020). The pervasiveness of the state surveillance apparatus in the XUAR has rightly been the focus of many academics and journalists researching the implementation of surveillance practices in China. Surveillance practices in the region have often been conflated with other regional SCS. However, the system in the XUAR remains unlike that of any other region of China both by scope and level of penetration (Batke, Ohlberg, 2020).
Moreover, the SCS implemented in the region requires a separate analysis along with China’s policy on ethnic minorities, its historic conceptualization as a ‘frontier’ region that dates back to China’s imperial period, and securitization of the region along the separatism/terrorism spectrum in the post-9/11 world.
Overall, implementation problems of the social aspects of the SCS persist. According to Zhang Yong, the deputy director of the NDRC, they consist of 1. the legislative framework, which so far consists of “guiding opinions”, 2. the quality of the data being shared across governmental organizations, 3. the system of rewards and punishments requires expansion, and 4. a more optimistic framing of the SCS (Knight, 2018, p.8).
The mechanism of ‘joint punishments and rewards or blacklists/redlists and their implementation also requires special attention, as the system in its current form is tilted towards punishments rather than rewards. According to inter-ministerial memorandums about different sectors of social credit, 38 were joint punishment measures and only 5 were joint rewards. Moreover, The Credit China, the national portal of the SCS, publishes monthly releases about the persons subject to joint punishments but rarely provides updates on joint rewards (Chen, 2019).
Despite these difficulties, “the emergence of surveillance capitalism and subsequent development of SCS has laid the groundwork for a revival of the Chinese planned economy in a new and improved hybrid form” (Aho & Duffield, 2020, p.12).
The SCS in its current reincarnation has historical precedents in the shape of previous tools of bureaucratic governance that predate the Communist period. The accumulation of information on its subjects, social construction of morality (or state-mandated behaviour) and control over the flow of information have all contributed to the pervasiveness of the Chinese state since the imperial period. The policies of the CCP’s exemplified by the Dang’an personnel files and local experiments with morality files are conceptual extensions of the socialist notion of the malleable human being. Discussions arounds the SCS should include not only political dimensions but consider the historiography of cultural and economic aspects.
As outlined in Part II, the previous conceptual reincarnations of the SCS- the Dang’an files and ‘morality files’ highlight not only the monopoly of the Chinese state to collect data and surveil its citizens but also the convention of classification into social categories. In other words, the logic of the state instrumentarian power has shifted to digital dossiers. The wide scope of the SCS’s policy documents provide the central government with the theoretical capacity to adjust policies and expand the system almost in real time. A singular unified SCS that is capable of processing data flows from both state and private sources and assessing citizens across the vast country is hard to envision, given the fragmented nature of current pilot programs and logistical challenges.
The different competing municipal SCS on the ground require clarification from the central government. Despite issuing guidelines for improvement (State Council, 2020), municipal governments’ continued experiments with expanding the notions of credit and have led to public confusion and may undermine its stated goal of improving trustworthiness.
However, the main factor of its success depend on how the key central governmental agencies tasked with its implementation: the PBOC and the NDRC resolve existing tensions given that they employ differing concepts of ‘credit’ and ‘social credit’.
It remains to be seen how the two agencies resolve existing tensions given that they employ differing concepts of ‘credit’ and ‘social credit’. Major private sector players such as Tencent and Alibaba also play a vital role as they have so far earned the trust (and vitally, data) of their users. While the establishment of Baihang does showcase the capacity of the government to unify and coopt diffuse credit scoring systems, without the cooptation of the biggest private sector players, its success can only be limited.
Draft data legislation protection legislation reflects the necessity to provide regulation and clarity in its vast data market not only due to financial and security reasons but also because personal data protection and data privacy have become an increasing concern among Chinese citizens.If the data-driven SCS was intended to address mistrust between the government and its citizens, overreaching programs by some municipal governments may have had the opposite effect.
While it continues to build on the already present intellectual, ideological and structural antecedents, the SCS will undoubtedly continue to be subjected to adjustments and modifications as priorities of the central government shift.
About the author:
Zaya Chinbat holds a BA in Politics and Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, UK, and is currently writing her Master’s thesis in Transition Management (MSc) at JLU in Germany.
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