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Is China’s social credit system as Orwellian as it sounds?

February 26, 2019

In the Western imagination, China’s infamous social credit system is an AI-powered surveillance regime that violates human rights. We often hear about examples of its use for asserting political control, such as last month, when a man was stripped of 950 out of 1,000 points—having been docked 10 points every time he petitioned the government for help with his mother’s medical dispute. But rarely do we hear about the other narrative, in which it is a governance mechanism welcomed by many citizens who are fed up with rampant fraud, counterfeit products, and public health failures.

This is the not-so-straightforward reality portrayed by a story from the South China Morning Post. (Though, to be fair, there are questions about just how independent the SCMP is.) In the village of Jiakuang Majia within Rongcheng city, one of a dozen places lauded for its success in piloting the program, residents say the scheme has mostly been a positive influence—if an influence at all. There is actually no AI or other technology involved. Rather, points are tracked with paper and manual labor—and many consider the system a peripheral bureaucracy, far from a driving force in their day-to-day lives.

China’s social credit system is designed to incentivize lawfulness and integrity. Citizens can earn points for good deeds like volunteering, donating blood, or attracting investments to the city; they can lose them for offenses like breaking traffic rules, evading taxes, or neglecting to care for their elderly parents. Their scores then affect their access to community welfare programs: high scorers receive benefits like free medical checkups and discounts to heating bills; low scorers lose government subsidies or get barred from government jobs.

But while this last detail is often characterized in the West as a freedom-infringing power grab by an authoritarian government, many scholars argue that social credit scores won’t have the wide-scale controlling effect presumed. The data the scheme collects doesn’t actually align with the data that, say, a bank needs to determine whether to grant you a loan. Regulations have also been revised in instances of intense pushback: Suining County got rid of its point deductions for unauthorized petitions, for example, because of widespread unpopularity. Therefore, these scholars say, the system acts more as a tool of propaganda than a tool of enforcement. Others point out that it is simply an extension of Chinese culture’s long tradition of promoting good moral behavior and that Chinese citizens have a completely different perspective on privacy and freedom.

This story originally appeared in our AI newsletter The Algorithm. To have it directly delivered to your inbox, sign up here for free.

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