The Chinese social credit system is not the 'Black Mirror' that you imagine


The Chinese government does not seek to give a score to each of its citizens but impose a climate of greater confidence that reverses the traps and "immoralities" that have proliferated during the developmental stage.

In recent months many Spanish and international media have been filled with dystopian stories about a supposed "scoring system" with which the Chinese Government, according to the number obtained by its citizens, will restrict or increase in proportion their level of rights. Headlines such as " Black Mirror is becoming real in China" or references to George Orwell's 1984 book have filled the web pages with important media.
But the news, however much it has been repeated, is false.

The main problem that these media have committed is that they have mixed two systems that currently exist in China, but that is different: the Chinese government's social credit system and the credit system of various private companies. Both, almost in their entirety, work separately. What are their differences, and what are their real effects? And why have the characteristics of one and the other been mixed?

Private social credit systems are, broadly speaking, a system of loyalty points that different companies have created, not too different from what an airline's points program might be. The most known and important is the Zhima credit launched by the Chinese technological giant Alibaba. Users of this company are not required to be part of Zhima. If they do, they can get multiple advantages associated with the services offered by this company, depending on the score they have. From certain points, one can try a car for free for several days, you do not need to leave a deposit when renting a bicycle or you can reduce your waiting time in the hospital substantially.

It is a separate system of the Government, in which one earns points for the constant use of the services of (or associated to) Alibaba, and also for the correct use of the contracted products and services -for example, to return in good condition a bicycle that has been rented or a hotel room in which one has stayed.

On the other hand, there is a social credit system of the Chinese Government. In reality, this system does not yet exist at the national level, but several tests are being carried out locally (in large cities such as Hangzhou or Chengdu, as well as in smaller ones), so we should talk about several systems or programs. Although to understand us, we can group all of them under the concept of "social credit system" Chinese.

In general terms, it does not work based on a single score, as it has been repeated in the media, but on the basis of blacklists - the confusion has been to mix the characteristics of the private Zhima system, of which we have spoken before and it does work on the basis of points, with the government-driven one.

Finishing a blacklist can be due to several reasons. One of the most common is, for example, bad behavior in airplanes or trains. In Chinese social networks have repeated complaints against people who occupy seats wrong and do not want to give, or passengers who assault bus drivers, with fatal consequences. The blacklists of the Chinese social credit system act against these people: in case of bad behavior on an airplane, for example, the individual can end up on a blacklist that will prevent him from taking flights for a specific length of time. As Rogier Creemers explained, one of the leading researchers on the social credit system, in this podcast, what makes this system is not to create new rules or laws, but to amplify existing ones - such as behavioral ones in public transport - and make their imposition more effective.

Broadly speaking, the creation of blacklists is the essence of the Chinese social credit system. And the perception that the country's citizens have of it is almost the opposite of that expressed in the Western media.

The most important blacklist currently is one for those who fail to comply with court orders, such as the payment of fines or debts. In this case, those affected are prohibited, among other things, from buying luxury products or first class tickets. A controversial case that jumped in relation to this blacklist was that of a young man who, having obtained a high grade in the entrance examination to the university, they did not let go to the private center that had chosen, since his father was in this blacklist by default.

But this system not only affects individual citizens but also companies and even local officials and governments. The Chinese government has raised it as a mechanism that can help fight corruption and achieve more transparency.

"On the one hand, there are several government fields that will be under greater scrutiny, such as acquisitions, bids or statistics. In addition, like any part of a contract, local governments may be subject to court orders, putting officials on the blacklist if they do not consistently follow court rulings. That has happened repeatedly, "says Jeremy Daum, a researcher on the social credit system at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.

Another of the main characteristics of this blacklist is that the names of those included in it are public. Anyone can see if the person they are going to hire (or the company they are going to work with) is in it. It is a measure that aims to pass public shame to the offenders, with the hope that it will not happen again.

Precisely, the public data of this blacklist could have been the reason why many western media have mixed characteristics of the government's social credit system with those of the private Zhima initiative. Because if one is on this list of defaulters of the Chinese Executive, this does have an effect on the Zhima credit: the points will fall drastically - the idea is that, if one resists paying debts or following court orders, it will not be too reliable to be able to use the special services of the users with the highest score. This is one of the few points of connection between both systems, despite the confusion that has created between much of the press.

On the other hand, the relationship between the Zhima credit and the authorities exist, but it is of another type. "The government initially encouraged Ant Financial, creators of the Zhima credit and part of the Alibaba empire, to create a financial credit reporting system," says Jeremy Daum. The idea, later discarded, was that Zhima was a ranking that allowed assessing the reliability of individuals and companies at the time of giving them bank loans (something similar to what the Equifax company does in the United States). In a Chinese society in which until recently was only paid in cash, there are very few financial histories of people, with the difficulties involved in giving reliable credit. Ant Financial, in spite of everything, has not been able to create a system that satisfies the Chinese authorities, reason why the idea has been rejected.

If the private Zhima system had this initial financial spirit, the goal of the Government's social credit system is clear: create a society with a higher level of trust. After years of developmentalism where scams, dubious behaviors, and immoral attitudes and practices have been repeated, the Communist Party wants, through practices such as this, to create more virtuous citizens and a more general climate of trust. The Chinese State, as it has happened during a good part of its millenary history, thus imposes itself as the moral authority of citizens and trusts in being able to change their attitudes through social engineering.

In China, at the popular level, the social credit system has not generated great controversy. It can be discussed and criticized social networks, and the government usually talks about it. Analyzing the perception of Internet users, Manya Koetse says that, compared to the government system, "the Zhima system is much more popular since it affects more daily life". Koetse also believes that Chinese social network users see the Zhima system and the government's social credit system as totally different realities, something opposite to what has happened in the social networks of the West.

It is possible that the catastrophic vision with which these new Chinese systems have been perceived in Europe and the United States has more to do with a technological pessimism of its own than with the Chinese reality. After decades of seeing the Internet and social networks as the great liberators of humanity, we now realize that they can also serve as speakers of extremism or social monitoring tools. The Chinese, for their part, have never fully participated in this stage of technological utopia. They simply realize that thanks to these advances, life is easier and more comfortable than before. Something important, but without dystopias or utopias in between.