A Chinese Ministry of Love?
by Adam Knight
China, like much of the rest of the world, stands on the cusp of a big data revolution. Its “Internet Plus” initiative, the brainchild of Premier Li Keqiang, was launched earlier this year with the aim of integrating information technologies into everyday life. Data analytics are already being used for smarter decision-making in the fields of urban planning, food safety, medical research, tourism, and transport. The latest addition to China’s information technology portfolio has, however, raised questions about the Chinese Communist Party’s big data ambitions.
Buried deep in the recently published draft 13th Five Year Plan’s 27,000 characters were six seemingly innocuous characters referring to a “social credit system” (shehui xinyong tixi). This was not the first time China’s government had referenced the idea. The State Council first laid out its plan to design a nationwide credit rating system in June 2014, though details as to what this may entail remain sketchy. This all-encompassing program will seek to boil down vast swathes of personal data, online shopping habits, and social media interactions into one handy credit score. To be launched by the end of 2017, the Chinese government has spoken of the system as a tool for cleaning up corruption, collecting tax, and protecting the environment. Crucially, an individual’s online rating will affect their offline prospects, such as their ability to open a business or receive a promotion.
Social credit is not without precedent in China. Commentators have been quick to draw parallels with the country’s dang’an or “dossier” system so ubiquitous under Mao. More recently, the Chinese government already operates a website allowing citizens to quickly carry out background checks on one another. Scores are compiled from data on court rulings and interactions with the state, with the whole system run with the help of Chinese tech giant Baidu.
The eerie resemblance to the work of Orwell’s Ministry of Love has ensured widespread coverage of the social credit system around the world, bolstering dystopian views of the Internet as a tool for the consolidation of autocratic rule. It is of course worth remembering, however, as the Snowden revelations remind us, that the desire to collect, analyze and store vast quantities of user-generated data is not unique to China. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill currently under consideration in the UK will permit one of the British security and intelligence agencies to grab “bulk personal data sets” including information from grocery loyalty cards and banking details to “join the dots in an investigation and to focus attention on individuals or organizations that threaten [the UK’s] national security.”
Yet, the size and depth of China’s proposed system is unmatched by any existing program anywhere in the world. Beyond its sheer scale, the social credit system is interesting for two further reasons.
First of all is its reliance on cooperation with China’s Internet industry. While debates rage in Europe and America over the compliance of technology companies with state governance, China has long co-opted private enterprise into its overall information control regime, delegating regulatory responsibilities through a pyramid of censorship right down to the user level.
This corporate complicity in state control will, it seems, prove just as central to the social credit program as with other experiments in online governance. Early in 2015, the People’s Bank of China announced that eight e-commerce companies had signed up to a pilot system of personal credit scores for Chinese netizens. One such example already in place is Sesame Credit (Zhima Xinyong), launched in January 2015 by online retail behemoth Alibaba. A quick search of microblogging platform Weibo brings up countless examples of Sesame users proudly posting their scores, rated between 350 and 950. Ratings are affected by transactions made using Alibaba’s payment app, Alipay, as well as by personal information such as profession, hukou (household registration), and, coming soon, penalties against a user’s driving license. Scores of 600 or more earn users a discount when booking hotel rooms. Over 650 points allows users to hire a car without putting down a deposit. Users with a score of 750 or higher can expect reduced bureaucracy when applying for visas to Luxembourg or Singapore.
Secondly, perhaps the most interesting but ambitious aspect of the social credit system is its attempt to establish a firm link between online activity and offline behavior. Again, this desire to influence the physical world through technology is not exclusive to China. Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team, now a private company but originally founded as a government initiative, is known to use nudge theory to trial policy change. In China, however, this interest in behavioral science serves a much greater political role. The leadership under President Xi Jinping has sought in recent years to impose a particular view of civility and good behavior through the Chinese media. Internet tsar Lu Wei has described the need for an online “spiritual garden” in order to ensure model offline conduct.
This view has been defined by the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to move beyond the simple control of overtly political online content, instead incorporating a number of tutelary measures to tackle information and online interactions damaging to the nation’s “human quality.” The overall aim, it would seem, of such programs is to reinforce the offline ramifications for online activity beyond the realm of explicitly illegal actions to include behavior deemed “uncivil” by the state.
It remains to be seen just how extensive or effective the proposed social credit system will be. Its implementation will not be straightforward, nor the data collected easy to handle. One thing is for certain, however: the Chinese government has plans to leverage the power of the Internet and big data analytics to a level unmatched by any other nation.
About the Author
Adam Knight is the cofounder of Tong Digital, a UK-based startup specializing in managing the Chinese social media portfolios of British companies. He holds a BA in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, where he wrote his dissertation on emerging forms of media control in contemporary China.