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What do people in China think about ‘social credit’ monitoring?

It’s not ‘Black Mirror.’ But does this push the Chinese to clean up their online and offline behavior?

Commuters walk by surveillance cameras installed at a walkway between two subway stations in Beijing in February. Millions of people in China reportedly were blocked from buying plane tickets last year because of poor “social credit” scores. (Andy Wong/AP)

China’s emerging “social credit” system has prompted discussion about whether this is an Orwellian dystopia, a chapter in Aldous Huxely’s “Brave New World” or episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”

A 2014 government document announced detailed plans to establish a nationwide social credit system. The plan called for assessing citizens, businesses and other organizations in China with regard to their creditworthiness, adherence to law and compliance with the government’s ideological framework.

Five years later, here’s what has emerged — and what the Chinese think about the concept of social credit.

As China legal expert Jamie Horsely points out, the dystopian claims are quite premature. China has both private and government-run social credit schemes, and these nascent programs differ substantially.

Zhima Credit (also known as Sesame Credit), a private program run by Ant Financial (Alibaba), operates more like a voluntary “loyalty scheme,” measuring customer trustworthiness through online behavior and credit history. High scores parlay into customer benefits such as low-interest loans, preferential access to bike and car-sharing services, free health checkups and fast-tracked visa applications for destinations like Luxembourg and Singapore.

Local governments are piloting their own social credit systems

In more than 43 Chinese cities, local governments have instituted mandatory pilot social credit systems. The goal is to steer the behavior of individuals, businesses, social organizations and government departments by publishing “redlists” to reward especially “trustworthy” behavior, like helping neighbors. Those on the list might get a reduced tax bill, for example.

But citizens who fail to pay their taxes — or spread false information, break traffic rules or commit minor infractions are now punished for their “untrustworthy” or illegal behavior. They might see reduced government welfare provisions like being forbidden from public sector employment or being ineligible to apply for government benefits.

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Western news reports tend to view the concept as a powerful tool of social control in the hands of an increasingly repressive state. Last year, for instance, “blacklisted” Chinese reportedly could not purchase plane tickets. Some experts view social credit as a regulatory tool to reduce scams and rein in official corruption.

But how do Chinese citizens view these credit systems? In our 2018 survey with 2,209 Chinese citizens and dozens of in-depth interviews on different types of social credit systems in China, this is what we found:

1. Most Chinese citizens approve of both commercial and government social credit systems.

Fully 80 percent of respondents approve of social credit systems in China, with just 1 percent reporting either strong or moderate disapproval. And only 1 percent believe that a nationwide social credit system should not be implemented.

Our survey findings were echoed in a round of in-depth interviews with social credit users, giving us confidence that survey respondents were not falsifying their survey answers because of concerns about reprisals from government officials.

2. Wealthier citizens were highly in favor.

What surprised us the most is that socially advantaged citizens — wealthier, better-educated urban residents — report the strongest approval levels of social credit systems, along with older people. It might seem counterintuitive that this group would support potential constraints on their personal freedom.

Our interviews revealed two possible explanations. First, better-educated and wealthier citizens stand to gain from benefits like deposit-free car shares and fast-track hotel check-ins. Second, this group tends to perceive social credit systems less as an instrument of state surveillance and more as a means of improving life quality and fostering honest and law-abiding behavior in society.

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3. There’s low social trust in Chinese society.

Citizens see social credit systems as a reliable source of information on the trustworthiness of businesses, social organizations and citizens — 76 percent of respondents flagged a general lack of trust in Chinese society as a problem. Respondents see social credit as a helpful means of striking back at con artists, or punishing polluting and otherwise negligent firms.

4. There appears to be strong public support for a centralized government credit system after 2020.

A majority of respondents (59 percent) believe the central government should manage a nationwide social credit program, while only 9 percent think local governments should take the lead. Respondents from our survey data see the state as a more trustworthy handler of personal data.

These results reflect “hierarchical trust” — Chinese citizens tend to invest higher degrees of trust in the central level and much less in local authorities. And respondents seemed skeptical about private players’ involvement in social credit. Only 17 percent of respondents believe that the government should work with private enterprises. Fewer than 2 percent believe private companies should manage a nationwide social credit system.

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5. The nascent social credit schemes have very limited reach.

But do social credit schemes actually push Chinese to clean up their online and offline behavior? Respondents indicated they changed their behavior in only a few categories such as mobile payment use, online shopping and adhering to traffic regulations.

It’s possible this limited reach reflects low public awareness that citizens’ actions are under scrutiny. Only 7 percent of respondents were aware they were part of a local government social credit system. Though more than 80 percent of respondents knew they were part of a commercial social credit monitoring program, the survey’s findings suggest that the purported benefits were not particularly important — quite a few citizens were unaware of their Sesame Credit score.

Will there be more focus on the downside of negative behavior as these schemes evolve?

This study suggests that positive inducements tend to predominate in social credit schemes, while forms of punishment such as restrictions from public transport play a limited role. Offering the carrot helps local governments attain buy-in from citizens and businesses.

At this point, it is unclear if and how a national system will be rolled out. Some reports suggest that a nationwide system could be up and running as soon as 2021, while others show that China’s government pilots are fragmented and at an early stage, with no standardized social credit system emerging at the moment. As the government-directed system comes into wider use, more punitive elements of the schemes may dampen enthusiasm, if sanctions are increased in the rollout of the nationwide system.

Our findings suggest that public opinion in China is, for the moment, positively inclined toward social credit schemes — though official Chinese media reporting and the limited room for critical debates on surveillance and privacy issues may help foster these rosy impressions.

These attitudes could shift if social credit programs — and the national social credit rollout — begin to embrace a broader set of punitive measures and restrictions.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated to clarify the official name of Zhima Credit, the private credit scoring and loyalty program system developed by Ant Financial Services Group.

Genia Kostka is professor of Chinese politics at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.