China’s social credit system spreads to more daily transactions

Gao Haibao, looks at stock information on his mobile phone as he climbs the stairs to his apartment.

In May, enforcement of China’s social credit system spread to the travel industry, restricting millions of Chinese citizens with low social credit scores from purchasing plane and train tickets. China has stated that all 1.35 billion of its citizens will be subject to its social credit system by 2020, and travel restrictions for low-scoring citizens is only one of many to come. The system resembles an American credit score, but more than just low credit limits and high interest rates, a poor Chinese social credit score can lead to bans from travel, certain schools, luxury hotels, government positions, and even dating apps.

Businesses receive their version of a social credit score as well. Paying taxes on time and abiding by government demands can lead to good standing which provides benefits such as better loan conditions given out by the government and easier access to public tender. Conversely, businesses that provide low-quality or unsafe products lead to a bad score and shuts them out from such benefits.

Status SiGNAL

Three dozen pilot systems in different Chinese provinces have launched since 2014, each using different metrics to calculate an individual’s social credit score. The system is eerily similar to the sci-fi series Black Mirror’s episode “Nosedive”; more and more interactions are subject to surveillance and affecting social credit scores. Residents of Rongcheng start with 1000 points, and different acts change their score. For example, a traffic ticket is -5 points, an “exemplary city level heroic act” is +30 points, and donating to charity or blood banks equates to points depending on the amount given.

Although a low score may lead to the restrictions mentioned above, those with high scores can receive rental bikes without a deposit, $50 heating discounts in the winter, and advantageous terms on bank loans. Names of Rongcheng residents with the highest scores are also displayed with pride outside city hall, the public library, and in residential communities and villages. A social credit score is not just a ticket to access certain services—a score signals a person’s character, elevating the status of some while stigmatizing others.

The social credit score has already permeated the private sector in China. Ant Financial has a deal with Rongcheng, and individuals who sign onto the service can pay bills using Ant Financial’s app, Alipay. Those authorizing Alipay’s service are given a Zhima credit score. The app also hosts China’s version of Facebook, popular games, and even China’s most popular dating app, Baihe. Those who purchase diapers with Alipay are given a high Zhima score and deemed more responsible than those who spend 10 hours playing video games. A low score can ban an individual from services like Baihe, and in the future, this score may be reported to the government and lead to additional sanctions.

Danger in Opacity

Xi Jinping has described the system’s foundation using the mantra, “Once untrustworthy, always restricted.” Although the program’s rollout may have materialized from a desire to stop potential political unrest and uphold the power of the regime, there are some potential material benefits. China deals with the production of counterfeited consumer products, mislabeled food products, and adulterated pharmaceuticals, and the program has been the state’s way of smoothing out rapidly growing urbanization.

The danger of a social credit system hinges largely on its opacity. It is not clear what factors affect someone’s score, and so those with a low score may face exclusion without knowing why. Access to the benefits of the social credit system require a high score, but those who need these benefits the most may be structurally denied the opportunity to raise their score due to low education, an isolated social network, or untrustworthiness from having a low score to begin with. Additionally, contesting one’s score can be characterized as disloyalty, lowering one’s score further. Unless Chinese citizens are given transparency from private companies and the government of what exactly goes into the social credit score, a very real danger exists the system will only exacerbate existing socioeconomic disparities.

Christian Rome Lansang contributed to this post.