Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 45 (2020) 113–127 ©2020 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation  http://doi.org/10.22230/cjc.2020v45n1a3483


Unpacking China’s Social Credit System: Informatization, Regulatory Framework, and Market Dynamics

Lianrui Jia, York University

Lianrui Jia is a doctoral candidate in Communication and Culture at York University, 3006 Victor Philip Dahdaleh Building, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3. Email: lianrui.jia@gmail.com.


ABSTRACT

Background China, with a population of 802 million internet users, a handful of the world’s largest internet companies, and an unfolding Social Credit System (SCS), is often criticized for exerting its data power to surveil and discipline its population. 

Analysis This article first provides a historical and situated analysis of the SCS as a part of China’s informatization and datafication processes. It then highlights problems in the current legal and regulatory data-protection framework and discusses the self-regulation practices of the private sector. 

Conclusions and implications  Overall, this case study provides a historical and contextualized understanding of China’s SCS and related big data developments and assesses the implications of these development for the globalizing Chinese internet, technology companies and the Chinese public.

Keywords China; Big data; Social credit system; Chinese internet

RÉSUMÉ

Contexte Avec une population de 802 million d’utilisateurs d’Internet, avec quelques des plus grandes sociétés Internet du monde, et une Système de Crédit Sociale (SCS) en pleine développement, La Chine est souvent critiqué pour utilizer son pouvoir de données pour surveiller et discipliner sa population. 

Analyse  Tout d’abord, cet article fournit une analyse historique et située de la SCS comme partie des processus de informatisation et datafication de la Chine. Ensuite, il souligne les problèmes du cadre juridique et régulatoire actuel en matière de protection des données et examine les pratiques d’autorégulation du secteur privé.

Conclusions et implications  En global, cette étude de cas fournit une compréhension historique et contextualisée du SCS chinois et de l’évolution du Big Data, et évalue les implications de ce développement pour l’Internet chinois en pleine mondialisation, les entreprises technologiques et le public chinois.

Mots clés  La Chine; Big data; Système de Crédit Sociale; l’Internet chinois


Introduction

The quick rate of China’s internet development has simultaneously impressed the world and alerted it to China’s data power (see, for example, Mistreanu, 2018). With the first internet connection established in 1987, China’s internet growth has been substantial: China now has an internet population of 802 million and a penetration rate of 57.7 percent (CNNIC, 2018). The sheer size of the online population and its computational power make it a lucrative market and a business destination, but it has also become a place with a treasure trove of data—data of geopolitical and economic importance. With the convenience of each mobile phone as tracker, sensor, and surveyor, Chinese society is quickly being datafied at the behest of state and corporate interests. This article focuses on one of the most significant moves toward the national deployment of big data in China: the Social Credit System (SCS). It asks three key questions: What is the developmental trajectory and historical context of China’s SCS? What is the legal and institutional framework that guides and supervises these big data developments? What are the social implications of this technical assemblage within the current context of Chinese commercial internet development? Using political economy as the underlying theoretical framework of analysis, this article contributes to a historically informed understanding of China’s SCS, focusing on the articulation and arrangements of power between the Chinese government, emerging commercial internet companies, and society.

Social Credit System

Instituted in 2014 by the State Council in the Plan for the Construction of the Social Credit System (SCS) (State Council, 2014), China’s SCS is a national project that sets a comprehensive outline for the establishment of data infrastructure for credit scoring. To be completed by year 2020, the SCS also offers a reward and punishment system in all areas of social life and for all walks of life, including government affairs, judicial affairs, and social activities (Meissner, 2017). The meaning of “credit” in the SCS is expansive, including both financial credit and trustworthiness defined in the 2007 State Council’s Guiding Opinions Concerning the Constructions of a Social Credit System, to trust and honest conduct in the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System in 2014 (Creemers, 2018; Liang, Das, Kostyuk, & Hussian, 2018). The blueprint of the 2014 SCS projects a nationwide system, a major upgrade in scope and scale from various existing municipal- or city-level social credit system pilots, such as Honest Shanghai and Honest Hangzhou, to realize the goal of social management (Creemers, 2018) and steering social behaviour changes (Kostka, 2019). The Social Credit System also includes various reward and punishment schemes (e.g., the creation of red and blacklist), with the goal to solve the deep-seated problems that plague China’s legal reform—ensuring effective legal and regulatory implementation, enforcement, and compliance for issues such as food safety and environmental regulation (Creemers, 2018; Kostka, 2019).

Given the unprecedented scope and scale of the SCS, a slew of academic studies have examined the nuts and bolts of the system. Legal scholar Xin Dai (2018) considers the SCS to be part of a larger transformation toward the reputation state, where reputation-based decision-making creates behavioural incentives for social actors of a particular group. While others see China’s SCS as the epitome of data-driven governance, which harnesses surveillance as a tool to shape and create social worlds (Backer, 2018). Compared to the “scored society” conceptualized by Danielle Citron and Frank Pasquale (2014), where the pervasive use of predictive algorithms is deployed to mine personal information to make guesses about individual’s likely actions and risks, the SCS engages government as well as private actors, not so much for risk reduction but to engage social engineering for the purpose of social governance and management in sync with China’s deepening market reform (State Council, 2014). As China lacks a well-established credit rating and credit card industry (Xu, Tang, & Guttman, 2019), the demand for a credit system dated back to malicious accounting and loan-lending activities that prevailed during the market reform era of the 1990s (Liang et al., 2018). Overall, the significance of the current SCS construct, as Fan and his colleagues argue (2018), goes beyond the monitoring of the day-to-day activities of average citizens to the buildup of a nationwide surveillance infrastructure that upgrades the government’s ability to surveil all facets of society and normalizes a broader culture of surveillance via the “infrastructurization” (p. 17) of platforms.

Contrary to many dystopic depictions of the SCS, research study finds, through a large-scale survey, that there is a very high level of public support for the SCS and virtually no disapproval, in particular among the better-educated and wealthier population and those who receive the actual reward benefit (Kostka, 2019). Public support for local government SCS pilots is high (Kostka, 2019), which complements previous studies on public concerns over commercial credit systems such as Sesame Credit, where users expressed a lack of understanding of how the black box worked (Ahmed, 2017b).

These studies shed light on the inner workings of the unfolding SCS, its historical origins (Liang et al., 2018), potential obstacles for implementation (Dai, 2018; Liang et al., 2018), and the implications it may have for existing laws and regulations and society writ large (Backer, 2018; Creemers, 2018). Although the SCS sets out ambitious plans, scholars are cautious in projecting its actual implementation. Implementation requires expansive institutional support, cultural legitimation, and legal safeguards. Current ongoing SCS experiments are taking shape in various parts of China in accordance with specific socio-technical conditions. In Rongcheng, for example, a city at the forefront of China’s SCS movement, the maintenance and operation of the system hinges upon a group of 10 information gatherers; they use piles of paper and pens to record every instance of voluntary work and every donation fellow residents give to the community, in order to account for the rewards and punishment they should receive (Gan, 2019). In 2017, China’s Supreme People’s Court reported 6.15 million Chinese citizens had been banned from taking flights for social misdeeds (Reuters, 2018a). By the end of 2018, Chinese courts banned would-be travellers from buying flights 17.5 million times (Kuo, 2019). In no small way, the governance power of SCS is real and looming. Beyond impacts felt by the individual, the SCS also serves a larger purpose in transforming how the state governs and makes policy decisions, which draws historical parallels to the Golden Projects that were instituted in China in the 1990s. The next section traces the connections and distinctions between these two projects to contextualize the significance of the SCS.

China’s informatization: From Golden Projects to the Social Credit System 

Chinese big data development can be regarded as the latest iteration of the state’s informatization strategy, which was adopted in the 1980s to build an “information society” (Jiang & Fu, 2018). In the late 1970s, China embarked on informatization as part of the national strategy to modernize and achieve the transition from an agricultural, central planning society to an industrial society with a socialist market economy. Under the banner of informatization, the Chinese government supported the research and development of new technologies with the hope of leapfrogging development into a post-industrial economy, following Alvin Toffler’s (1980) prophecy in The Third Wave. Within the past three decades, China not only rapidly wired the country and reformed its telecommunication industry (Harwit, 2008), it also successfully fostered and assembled a team of commercially successful national champions (e.g., Huawei, Lenovo, and ZTE) (Eaton, 2015). Furthermore, a series of e-government initiatives called Golden Projects was put in place to spearhead the informatization of government administration and management. Table 1 lists the key components of the Golden Projects. The first twelve were pilot projects led to the construction of the infrastructure for China’s e-government procedures, as stipulated by State Council Document No. 17in 2002 (Liang, 2006). Most of these projects operated on the e-government internal network, directly linking to main databases.

The Golden Projects were implemented to achieve three main objectives: to strengthen government supervision and efficiency, to safeguard government revenue and rationalize government spending, and to ensure basic order in the national economy and social development (Liang, 2006). Probably one of the most notorious projects was the Golden Shield Project, later known as the Great Firewall, developed by the Ministry of Public Security with help from companies such as Nortel, Sun Microsystems, and Cisco. A project called the Golden Card Project, personally initiated by then-President Jiang Zemin, promoted the usage of credit and cash cards; it also prompted the inter-linking of automated teller machines (ATMs) between five major Chinese banks: Industrial Bank, Agricultural Bank, Bank of China, Construction Bank, and Communications Bank (Dai, 2000).  

Table 1a

Table 1b

As Xi Jinping came into power, informatization assumed a renewed strategic importance, especially under the political and economic realities of the time: informatization aims to provide a new engine and productive force for sluggish economic development and secure and enhance China’s aspiration of becoming a cyber superpower. Xi remarked on the first meeting of the Cybersecurity and Informatization Leading Small Group in 2014: “there is no national security without cybersecurity; there is no modernization without informatization” (Elsa, Sacks, Triolo, & Webster, 2017), reaffirming the crucial role internet and information and communications technology (ICT) are set to play in national development. The state government was also quick to realize the uses of big data and became an avid advocate for its potential in a series of government initiatives. Tencent (2017) CEO Ma Huateng first proposed the “Internet Plus” concept in 2013, and it was later endorsed and promoted by Premier Li Keqiang in 2015 in the Government Work Report as top-level strategy. The Internet Plus plan enacted mobile internet, cloud computing, big data, and the internet of things to upgrade traditional industries and create new poles of economic growth (Xinhua, 2015). In the Thirteenth Five-year Plan, big data was elevated into a national strategy and a crucial strategic resource to help upgrade industrial reform and social governance. Overall, big data development in China largely followed the emerging big data ideology that legitimated the continuous and large-scale extraction and processing of data as the basis of constructing a “brave new world” (Couldry & Yu, 2018), propelled by both the government’s appetite to better grip and exert control over the commercial motives of private corporations (Ahmed & Weber, 2018; Creemers, 2017).

In the same year, the State Council put out a comprehensive blueprint for the SCS. The plan set out four focused areas for the construction of the credit system (see Table 2). Compared to the Golden Projects, the SCS provided a much more unified and systematic upgrade to informatization, which had been underway since the early 1990s. The grounds covered by SCS were much more expansive and centralized. Most importantly, the SCS launched a reward and punishment scheme to tackle the “implementation problem” (Creemers, 2018). The Golden Projects digitized and informatized government services and management in preparation for China’s accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO), while the SCS incorporated society as a whole and fostered education and moral guidance (Backer, 2018; Creemers, 2018). Nonetheless, both systems were similarly framed in a technocratic and “techno-solutionist” tone that regarded ICTs as the panacea of the social problems that emerged during China’s market reform (Jiang & Fu, 2018). The system embarked upon and unleashed the normalization of datafication as a new paradigm for Chinese society, allowing for default data collection about daily activities to provide legitimate access to, understand, and monitor people’s behaviour (van Dijck, 2014). Furthermore, big data development was wrapped in China’s techno-nationalism (Feigenbaum, 2017) and cyber superpower ambition, which considers success in a high-tech race essential for building national pride and national power. Framing high-tech development as a global competition that China cannot afford to lose, a discourse of technological nationalism tied social media and big data to China’s overall informatization and modernization by tapping into a deep swell of Chinese national pride (Jiang & Fu, 2018).

Table 2

Regulatory framework

This extensive and concerted effort to gather and analyze data to reward or punish behaviours, and with the success of the SCS (Backer, 2018), required the simultaneous development of laws for the digital and data age. It was imperative to operate a data system to protect the integrity of the generation of data. Since 2012, the Chinese government has stepped up its effort in building a robust data protection regime (see Table 3) (Sacks, Shi, & Webster, 2019). Pressures were tabled at the top legislature in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress about the urgency to establish a systematic legal regime to protect privacy and personal information to keep pace with tech and big data development. 

Table 3

Several observations can be made about this recent raft of regulations: first, current regulatory authorities regarding privacy and data protection are dispersed across many government agencies and in various laws (e.g., criminal and civil law), rulings, and national standards. Although these efforts did establish a systematic legal and regulatory data protection regime that was largely absent, problems with interpretation and enforcement prevail. On one hand, national standards are only voluntary measurements and do not require legal compliance. On the other hand, the Cybersecurity Law contains contradictions, such as Article 24, which stipulates real-name registration policies and demands network operators to obtain usernames and personal information when registering for services (Lee, 2017). As the law provided citizens with unprecedented protection for their data, it also created numerous opportunities for the government or third parties to infringe upon citizen’s privacy (Lee, 2017). Furthermore, there are inconsistence between national standards and the Cybersecurity Law regarding the definition of consent, thus leaving space for interpretation by enforcement authorities (Sacks, 2018). These contradictions challenged the coherence of the data protection regime and tarnished the high standard of protection warranted by the Cybersecurity Law (Greenleaf & Livingston, 2017).

Second, regulations tended to emphasize the importance of data protection for the ends of national security and economic development rather than individual concerns of privacy. A prominent example was the adoption of the category of “important data” in the Cybersecurity Law Article 31, which are data that, if leaked, might endanger national security, national welfare, and public interest (Wangluo Chuanbo Zazhi, 2017). Existing Chinese laws and regulations tilted toward the protection of national security over individual rights. This fits with the larger trend within Chinese internet regulation and law-making processes where economic protectionism is often fused with national security, further obscuring the line between them as China sets out to reduce dependency on foreign technologies (Ahmed & Weber, 2018). In general, online privacy enjoys only a modicum of legislative protection in China (Wu, Lau, Atkin, & Lin, 2011).

Outside the purview of national laws and regulation, industry self-regulation regarding data protection are also emerging. The Internet Society of China (ISC) established the Personal Information Protection Committee in 2017, reaffirming the prevalence of privacy infringement and the urgent need for protection (ISC, 2017). In the 2016 Chinese Internet User Right Protection Report issued by the ISC (2017), 76 percent of internet users received fraudulent phone calls and messages from banks, internet companies, and television stations, and 54 percent of internet users think personal information leakage is very serious while 84 percent have been personally affected by such leakage. Government-enlisted companies in nationwide big data projects—such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—proved to have a bad record of data protection. Alibaba’s payment service, Alipay, was scrutinized by the Cyberspace Administration of China for enrolling users into its credit scoring system, Sesame Credit, without gaining user consent (Reuters, 2018b). The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) investigated Baidu and Tencent over poor privacy protection practices, for lacking proper and clear notifications for the collection and use of personal information. In the report by Ranking Digital Rights (2017) on the corporate accountability index, which measures governance, freedom of expression, and privacy, Baidu and Tencent scored poorly compared to other global internet companies, ranking 10 and 12 among the 12 internet and mobile companies examined. 

Overall, domestic Chinese internet companies’ data protection measures and practices were scant and inefficient. Together with the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, the Southern Metropolis (2017) newspaper tested 1,000 Chinese Web services and mobile applications. The study found that no company reached a “high” standard of transparency in terms of a privacy policy and nearly 80 percent of services ranked “low” and “very low.” Data breaches and leaks are a common occurrence for average internet users in China (Southern Metropolis, 2017). On the four-hundredth day of the enactment of the Cybersecurity Law, the same test was conducted on 100 popular applications and results showed that although the level of transparency for privacy policies improved, 13 applications still had no privacy policies (Southern Metropolis, 2018). Also, internet intermediaries are largely self-regulated when it comes to data protection, which means there are hardly any standard practices for obtaining user consent. Enterprises identify the lack of privacy protection as the biggest obstacle for the application of big data technologies (CAICT, 2018). Research revealed, for example, that the country’s most popular mobile chat application, WeChat, installs filters for tracking for both texts and images under the pressure of state regulation to closely monitor online communication (Knockel, Ruan, Crete-Nishihata, & Deibert, 2018), even though its parent company, Tencent, publicly claims that user data security is a top company concern (Chen & Deng, 2018). Furthermore, lacking judicial independence and effective checks and balances, individual users cannot claim any remedies for the infringement on their privacy carried out by the state government (Lee, 2017). For instance, Chinese journalist Liu Hu who writes about censorship and government corruption was arrested, fined, and blacklisted on the Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People’s Court, but because of his work and the lack of files, police warrant, or official notification, Liu found nowhere to complain or report to (Kobie, 2019).

In 2017, Baidu’s CEO, Yanhong Li, made a comment that angered many Chinese netizens: “If they (Chinese internet users) can trade privacy for convenience, for security, for efficiency, in a lot of cases, they are willing to abide” (Global Times, 2018). Former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee made a similar comment, “Chinese users are willing to trade their personal privacy data for convenience or safety. It’s not an explicit process but it’s a cultural element” (Webster & Kim, 2018). Even though privacy is perceived differently by Chinese society as compared to the West, and sometime carries a negative light given the socio-cultural context, there is an awakening and a sensitivity to state surveillance and the intrusion of commercial interests into individual privacy among Chinese internet users (Yuan, Feng, & Danowski, 2013). 

Market dynamics

It is in the political and economic interest of the Chinese government to secure and build a strong domestic internet industry and to foster globally competitive Chinese internet platform companies. Prior to the SCS, domestic internet companies, represented by the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) already held much sway in China’s internet governance agenda, on the global stage (Shen, 2016), in the domestic policy arena (Hong, 2017a), and in helping state economic transition and progress (Hong, 2017b). Alibaba and Tencent, for example, assisted local police in the Smart City project by providing surveillance networks and a cloud-based data system to facially recognize and arrest criminals and to track and forecast the movement of crowds (Lin & Chin, 2017). The SCS further fosters a symbiosis between the state and leading Chinese platform companies (Ahmed, 2017a; Jia, 2018; Jiang & Fu, 2018). In the construction of SCS, private Chinese platform companies were assigned an important role. The government handpicked five technology companies to co-develop an artificial intelligence open-innovation platform: Baidu for self-driving cars, Alibaba for the smart city, Tencent for medical imaging, and iFlyTek for voice recognition (Xinhua News Agency, 2017).

However, the symbiosis between the state and leading Chinese platform companies is by no means given and uncontested. In 2015, People’s Bank of China (PBOC) selected eight companies to pilot a unified personal credit platform for online lending. An episode in the tug-of-war between the PBOC and technology companies further illustrated the tensions and problems that arise when big technology companies take over government functions in big data development. The PBOC issued a notice giving each technology company six months to prepare (State Council, 2015). However, in the Personal Information Protection and Credit Management Forum held in 2017, PBOC Credit Bureau Chief Wan Cunzhi said that none of these eight tech firms met the licensing criteria, and questioned their ability to build full-fledged credit bureaus (Cadell & Zhang, 2017). The PBOC worried about the technology companies’ independence, whether those eight tech companies could meet the public’s expectation for privacy protection, and the conflict of interests between these companies as they each occupied a business segment and were not willing to share collected information (Shanghai Securities News, 2017). The PBOC was well aware that the ultimate interest of Tencent and Alibaba is in the sale of products, not public service (Hornby, Ju, & Lucas, 2018). The final institutional set up of the unified personal credit platform for online lending was later spearheaded by the National Internet Finance Association, which controls the majority stake of 36 percent of the platform; each of the eight companies holds an eight percent stake (China.org, 2018). In the meantime, the state has tightened online finance regulation—Tencent’s credit-scoring agency only survived for one day after its launch and then it was shut down by the Central Bank (Bloomberg, 2018).

Globally speaking, as Chinese internet and ICT companies expanded overseas, surveillance became a lucrative business segment in which Chinese companies rapidly established a market presence. Under the auspices of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Zimbabwe government signed a strategic partnership with a Guangzhou-based startup CloudWalk Technology to build a large-scale facial recognition program throughout the country, covering CCTV cameras, smart financial systems, airports, and railway and bus station security (Chutel, 2018; Hawkins, 2018). ZTE also assisted the Venezuelan government to develop a “fatherland card” and database, and to create a mobile payment system, raising concerns over the possible misuse of the information to stifle political opponents (Berwick, 2018). ZTE also provided the infrastructure for the Ethiopian government (Maasho, 2013). Huawei’s “safe city” solutions were also installed in more than 100 countries, from Serbia to Mauritius, and the company took part in the “safe Philippines” deal during Xi Jinping’s visit to the country, installing 12,000 closed circuit television cameras in Manila (Mandhana, 2019). Aided by the Chinese state, Chinese internet and technology enterprises also export the tools and equipment that operationalize the Chinese model of internet control and its internet sovereignty governance model, which favours the role of the state over the rights of netizens.  

Conclusion

In probing open data initiatives in the Global South, such as India’s biometric identity project, Payal Arora (2016) warns that we must recognize that these databased techniques of democracy are assemblages of institutions, policies, histories, cultural practices, and situational contexts that play out in a complex unison to materialize and articulate the plural realities of governance. This statement sheds important light on the SCS in China and how this system developed out of the distinctive informatization path led by the Central Communist Party to modernize the nation since the 1970s and the renewed national aspiration to become a global cyber superpower under the leadership of Xi Jinping. The implementation of the SCS is closely knitted with the socio-technical conditions and realities of Chinese society, where in 2018, internet penetration is slightly more than half of the country’s population (55.8%), of which only 27 percent are rural populations (CNNIC, 2018). To what degree the SCS will enlarge or close the rural-urban gap that plagued the historical development of Chinese telecommunication and internet (Hong, 2017b; Zhao, 2000) should be closely examined, especially as urban populations have access to more of the offered rewards (Kostka, 2019). Recent incidents have already demonstrated that ethnic minorities are prone and vulnerable to perilous data leaks, such as the facial recognition databases tracking the Uyghur Muslim population (Cimpanu, 2019). Furthermore, as the Chinese government gradually catches up on establishing a robust data protection regime to provide the necessary legal safeguard to the domestic development of the SCS, it will have long-standing implications for globalizing Chinese internet platform companies as they export goods and services to other nations and markets. To be certain, conflicts and contentions loom ahead between increasing public awareness for privacy protection (Soo, 2018), the business model of internet platform companies that hinge on ever more expansive data collection and the political interest of predicting and pre-empting individuals and movements that might be seen to endanger social stability. 

Acknowledgement

The author wishes to thank Dr. Tracey Lauriault, Dr. Merlyna Lim, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on this article. 

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