The New Republic reports: China wants to get in on the credit racket. At the moment, most Chinese citizens don’t have credit scores, unlike in the United States, where they have been part of the consumer landscape for decades, led by the big three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The Chinese government aims to fix that and fast, establishing a nationwide credit scoring system, known as the Social Credit System (SCS), by 2020.
As with China’s vast construction projects, this scoring system is fiercely ambitious, authoritarian, technologically sophisticated, and likely to disrupt the lives of millions of people. And although it is a deeply capitalist undertaking, the SCS is being positioned as a socialist effort. A 2014 planning document states that “a social credit system is an important component part of the Socialist market economy system” and that “its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of an sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues.” That vague phrasing actually speaks to the scope of the project. With “social credit,” the Chinese authorities plan to do more than gauge people’s finances; they want to rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all facets of life, from business deals to social behavior. Eventually, all Chinese citizens will be required to be part of the SCS.
As of now, the Chinese government is allowing select companies to roll out test projects designed to rate individuals’ trustworthiness. These include efforts by Baidu and Alibaba, respectively the country’s largest search engine and e-commerce site. The involvement of these tech companies is key. Credit scoring in the U.S. has long graduated beyond simple matters of credit card debt or bankruptcy history. The credit bureaus now double as some of the country’s biggest data brokers, and they consider a range of consumer activity when creating their proprietary scores. The scores themselves have grown in value, now being used for anything from rating credit worthiness to evaluating one’s fitness for a job (some states, including New York, have banned the use of credit scores in job screenings). As a consequence many forms of consumer scoring now lie outside existing consumer protections, as a World Privacy Forum report found last year.
China’s Social Credit System promises to build on these techniques, using the vast behavioral records of its people to rate them — as consumers, as citizens, as human beings. According to that same planning document, the SCS will be used “to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust,” which includes violations of the “social order.” In other words, everything Chinese citizens do, especially online, may be incorporated into their scores. Doctors, teachers, construction firms, scientists, and tourism employees will be scored. So will sports figures, NGOs, companies, members of the judicial system, and government administrators.
Approved behaviors and purchases will raise a score; other activities may lower it, perhaps drawing the unwanted attention of authorities in the process. Scores in turn will be used for employment, disbursing credit, and determining eligibility for social benefits. While the Chinese government has frequently touted its desire to create “a culture of sincerity” and “trust,” the plan uses surveillance, data collection, online monitoring, and behavioral tracking to render practically all of its citizens’ affairs in market terms. Rather than being equal, China’s citizens will be in fierce competition with one another, jostling for rankings better than their peers. [Continue reading…]