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Social credit: China's new citizen governance game

Signal of change / Social credit: China's new citizen governance game

By Kirsten Zeller / 01 Feb 2016

Chinese authorities have announced a system which will score its citizens' 'social credit'. The Government’s goal is to connect all citizens to an obligatory social credit system by 2020, which will assess “trustworthiness”. How exactly trustworthiness is determined remains relatively mysterious, however the BBC reported that an array of government data, including information on personal finances and traffic violations, will have a bearing on user score and ranking.

A total of eight state-sanctioned commercial systems offering personal credit ratings were launched at the end of last year, which will inform the design of the state social credit system. Sesame Credit, run by Alibaba - the world’s largest online shopping platform, is the most well-known of these. The site compiles consumer information into a score based on purchasing practices. Although Alibaba’s algorithm has not been unveiled, what is bought, how much is spent and the volume of purchases is taken into consideration. Consumers can earn perks with high scores, as well as share them with their circles to garner social credit.

So what?

Some media outlets have incorrectly conflated the planned government system and other commercial ventures. Although they are not one in the same, Chinese authorities are treating existing social credit ventures as pilot projects. These are likely to influence the development of the state social credit system in coming years.

One can imagine the logistical nightmare involved in ensuring that over 1.35 billion Chinese citizens are plugged in by 2020. However, assuming it is possible, other frightening questions crop up. How will trustworthiness be understood and calculated by the government? What will it come to symbolise and affect once it is expressed? Where will the line between citizen and consumer, and public and private information, be drawn? What role will social media data play? Will isolated incidents entrench citizens within limited opportunities? Will this tool enable Chinese authorities to produce, as well as measure, its vision of a model citizen?

Image credit: Lain


BBC (October, 2015) “China ‘social credit’ Beijing sets up huge system

Quartz (October, 2015) “All Chinese citizens now have a score based on how well we live, and mine sucks

New Scientist (October, 2015) “Inside China’s plan to give every citizen a character score

This signal was also spotted by George Harding-Rolls on 29 Oct 2017:

"First saw this a while ago, but since then it’s got more real…"

Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens

On June 14, 2014, the State Council of China published an ominous-sounding document called "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System". In the way of Chinese policy documents, it was a lengthy and rather dry affair, but it contained a radical idea.


This signal was also spotted by Ariel Muller on 25 Oct 2016:

China wants to give all of its citizens a score - and those who fall short will be denied basic privileges

Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how "trustworthy" you are.


This signal was also spotted by Joy Green on 18 May 2016:

China's new Social Credit System plans to "rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all facets of life, from business deals to social behavior: China is currently planning a vast national database for 2020 that "compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distills it into a single number ranking each citizen." apparently even information like playing video games too much could affect your score. a massive and terrifying invasion of privacy, and very authoritarian..."

China's Social Credit System: The most disturbing tech story of 2015

Few people seem to be paying attention, but for me, the scariest tech story of 2015 wasn't any of the many giant hacks afflicting big retailers, shadow IT, the impending doom of many of our favorite tech companies, cockeyed drone delivery schemes, or even the use of social media by terrorists.

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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