China’s planned ‘Social Credit’ system prompts warning

Thursday October 11, 2018 Published in Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

Regarding Tim Tepaki's many, many letters decrying those sceptical of China's intentions in the Pacific, I would like to recommend readers to research the “Social Credit” plan.

 

Under this plan, the Chinese government will use artificial intelligence to follow you day and night, including at home.

It will recognise you, and everybody you talk to, using public cameras and your own phone. It will note every purchase you make, and how you spend your time. It will follow you online, read your emails and texts, listen in to your phone calls and your conversations at home. This will allow it to rate you as a citizen. If you are deemed to be insufficiently servile, you may be denied job opportunities, loans, the ability to travel, even the ability to spend your own money. Your friends and family may be prompted to shun you, or you may be ordered to shun someone you care for.
The Social Credit plan is not some science-fiction dystopia, it is being built as we speak, with a view to being fully online the year after next.
So I ask you, do you really believe that a non-elected government that treats its own people this way will treat those Pacific countries that are in debt to it any better?

Alan Clarkson-Dodds 

Editor’s note: China’s plan to introduce a nationwide Social Credit System by 2020 has received wide media coverage and recently featured in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report.

In a blogpost based on a study published on the Social Science Research Network, professor of Chinese Politics at the Freie Universität in Berlin, Genia Kostka, says media headlines suggesting the “dystopian future” portrayed in an episode of popular Netflix series Black Mirror, called Nosedive, is becoming a reality in China as commercial companies and local governments introduce rating systems that rank Chinese citizens, businesses and social organisations.

“Currently, there are more than 40 local government-run SCS pilot programmes and numerous commercial pilots set up by technology firms such as Ant Financial (Alibaba) and Tencent.

“What the different fragmented initiatives have in common is their aim to steer citizens and organisations towards “trustworthy” or “honest” behaviour.

“Previous research focused mainly on the implementation and local experiments and analysed the systems as a big data-enabled approach to market regulation and as part of the CCP’s broader strategy of social management and social control.

“China Law Translate (Jeremy Daum) and China Copyright and Media (Rogier Creemers) have provided insightful analyses on the legal framework of the system. Yet, so far there has been little research into the public acceptance of these social credit rating systems.

“The small but growing number of studies investigating citizens’ attitudes towards social credit systems include qualitative interviews on Sesame Credit users’ ​consumer protection concerns and an analysis on official media discussions and social media posts.

“Our recent study on public opinion about China’s emerging social credit systems sheds light on how approval of social credit systems varies among different citizen groups.

“The study was conducted among 2209 Chinese citizens from February to April 2018 and is representative for the internet-connected population in China aged 14-65 (based on age, gender and region). Additionally, we conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with Chinese citizens to gain additional insights.

“The results show that social credit systems are already widely used in China: More than 80 percent of respondents reported to use a commercial pilot programme, with Sesame Credit being the most popular system.

“In contrast, only 7 per cent were aware of being part of a local government pilot. 43 per cent of respondents lived in one of the 42 localities with a government-run pilot; of these, only 11 per cent were aware of being part of a local government pilot. This suggests that local government pilots are not yet as advanced in scope or progress as a few showcase examples such as Honest Shanghai or Rongcheng in Shandong province might suggest.

“Our survey suggests very high levels of approval. Eighty percent of respondents either somewhat approve or strongly approve of social credit systems, 19 per cent perceive the social credit systems in value neutral terms (neither disapprove nor approve) while just 1 percent reported either strong or moderate disapproval.

“To some extent the high degree of approval we found might reflect the nature of conducting a survey in an authoritarian setting. Yet, half of respondents indicated strong approval, suggesting that overall public support is quite strong.

“The additional interviews we conducted further confirmed these high approval levels. However, the significant number of value-neutral respondents (neither approve nor disapprove) might suggest the existence of a group of “doubters” – one in five Chinese, who remain unconvinced and more critical.”

Genia Kostka is also a fellow at the Hertie School of Governance. Her research and teaching interests include China’s digital transformation, political economy and environmental politics.

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