How does China’s proposed ‘social credit’ scheme work exactly?

The Chinese government is rolling out a national social credit system this year to promote trustworthiness. What does it take to be a ‘good’ citizen, and what happens if you aren’t one?

Chinese shopping district
Chinese citizens are to be awarded scores from A+++ to D as their social credit score. Image: Flickr

Citizen surveillance

Life in China is very different from what we know here. CCTV and facial recognition are everywhere. It is estimated that there are 350 million CCTV cameras in the world, of which 65% are in Asia.

China is home to 170 million of them or almost 50% of all the surveillance cameras in the world. That works out to about one camera for every twelve people.

Facial recognition is becoming the norm. As at the start of December, every person buying a mobile phone in China must submit to a facial scan.

This is in stark contrast to the EU, where using facial recognition in public spaces has been banned for five years.

CCTV cameras
There are 170 million CCTV cameras in China. Image: Flickr

Social credit

The Chinese government is using that overwhelming surveillance to introduce a new concept – social credit.

Citizens will be monitored, and awarded gradings. This collected data adds to the already massive database China already has. From this data, citizens are given a score which range from A+++ to D. A good score means you are rewarded with discounts on your utilities and good rates for bank lending. A bad score means you might be refused a mortgage, or be banned from purchasing travel tickets.

A BBC report explains that even crossing the road without waiting for the lights is monitored. If you are caught jaywalking by CCTV, your photo, name and government ID number are publicly displayed on a billboard at the crossing.

It sounds to me like a very new kind of gamification. One where your daily life choices affect how you live. Thinking about recycling? Plus points. Don’t pay a bill on time? Negative points. It’s very much an episode taken straight out of Black Mirror.

Sound terrifying? We haven’t even started yet!

The social ecosystem

Social credit has been tested in Rongcheng and run from city hall. The 740,000 residents were assigned 1,000 points from which grades could be added or subtracted. The majority of residents are A graded – and make sure they stay that way.

Rogier Creemers, a Chinese Law scholar at the Chinese law at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies in the Netherlands says that this system will never work ‘technically nor politically’. Creemers says that ‘the system would instead expand and automatize existing forms of bureaucratic control, formalizing the existing controls and monitoring of Chinese citizens’.

The system is due to be rolled out nationwide this year. Schemes will be run by cities, government ministries and online payment providers. Data is collated from CCTV, neighbourhoods, libraries and businesses. Information will be shared via an ‘invisible web of information’.

Samantha Hoffman, Consultant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) researches Chinese social management. Hoffman says:

“The social credit system is just really adding technology and adding a formality to the way the party already operates.”

Chinese social credit system
Images of ‘civilized families’ are displayed on public billboards. Image: Foreign Policy


Social credit makes me very uncomfortable. We all live within the boundaries of the law, and the confines of moral behaviour and our own ethics, but what if we don’t get to decide what our own moral code is?

It is one thing punishing people for breaking the law (and quite rightly so!) however it is quite another to pass judgement on their everyday lives. Particularly when a bad judgement might mean you lose your home, or be unable to leave the country.

Not only are citizens subject to a social credit score, so too are companies. If they pay their taxes on time and do not receive any fines or penalties, they are ranked higher. A good company score means a better chance of winning public tenders and preferable lending.

This still makes me uncomfortable, but makes a little more sense. As an employee, you want to work for a company who you trust and who you know holds itself to a high standard. For individuals though? I can’t quite reconcile how this concept has any place in the 21st century.

Freedom of speech is something we hold dear. Freedom of movement perhaps even more so. Having those movements recorded, and judged, is never going to end well.

What do you think of the social credit concept? Can you see a benefit in encouraging ‘good’ behaviour, or do you think this level of monitoring is just repressive? Share your thoughts with us!

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