Is China’s Social Credit System Really Orwell’s Big Brother?

Posted on Oct 17, 2023 by Naiyie Lamb

China’s social score system remains an issue veiled in mystery and rumor. In the absence of reliable information, notions of an all-seeing, all-judging Big Brother have set off alarm bells for human rights and privacy advocates around the world.

The Chinese social credit system has also been compared to Orwell’s 1984 and the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, in which citizens’ opportunities hang on a disturbing social ranking system. 

While the comparisons may be exaggerated, they’re not totally inaccurate. In this article, I’ll demystify China’s social credit system and tell you everything you need to know about what the Chinese social score system is and isn’t. Let’s nosedive in!

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What Is China’s Social Credit Score System?

China’s social credit score system is a government program assessing citizens on various aspects of their “Chengxin” or “trustworthiness.” In some places in China, people are rated on their social as well as financial behavior. 

While the financial and social aspects of China’s scoring system are generally considered separate, non-financial activities can affect your financial standing and vice versa. Citizens’ scores affect their credibility and ability to operate in society. 

China’s score system doesn’t concern individual citizens alone, it also deals with enterprises and government bodies. What’s caused the greatest outcry, however, is how the system affects the privacy and basic human rights of ordinary citizens.

Misdemeanors that impact a citizen’s score include:

  • Eating on trains
  • Buying too many video games
  • Cheating on online video games
  • Spending “frivolously” 
  • Spreading rumors 
  • Posting “fake news”
  • Engaging in religious practices 
  • Not visiting elderly parents frequently

People with higher social credit scores enjoy preferential treatment, business support, and better travel options. Those with lower social credit scores may have difficulty finding work, housing, or good schools for their children, and may be restricted from some forms of travel. 

When you consider that by UN standards, freedom to work and travel are universal human rights, it’s easy to see why so many are critical of the system.

When Was the Credit Score System Implemented?

Things are moving slower than China initially hoped. The CCP first announced its six-year plan to impose a social credit scoring program back in 2014. The plan was to get the system to nationwide coverage by 2020, but so far, It’s running way off schedule. The first draft of the Social Credit Law only came out in November 2022, two years after it was supposed to be fully implemented. 

What Does the Credit Score System Aim to Achieve?

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state media source, Global Times says “China’s ongoing construction of the world’s largest social credit system will help the country restore social trust.”

The system aims to restore trust or “Chengxin” and discourage “uncivilized behavior” in five key areas:

  • Financial creditworthiness
  • Judicial enforcement
  • Commercial trustworthiness 
  • Societal trustworthiness 
  • Government Integrity
Are services still “public” if not everyone can use them?

People’s Daily, another state media outlet, states the aim of the system is to “promote honesty and deter dishonest behavior.” 

The methods used to achieve these goals are often extremely heavy-handed. By 2019, more than 17 million flights and five million train rides had been denied to people due to poor social credit. When you consider that their “crimes” were things like eating on trains or bad driving, this feels very extreme.

Hong Kong’s Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post notes that “individuals and companies deemed untrustworthy will also be publicly named and shamed” and could suffer in terms of “travel prospects, employment, access to finance, and the ability to enter into contracts.” 

Imagine being denied a flight because you drove badly?

 Those who lose credibility will find it hard to make a tiny step in society — Premier Li Keqiang 

Some critics also point out that terms like “societal trustworthiness” and “government integrity” may be kept intentionally vague to target individuals who pose a political threat. 

China has also recently updated its social credit system to include the use of Central Bank Digital Currencies. This makes it easier for the government to enforce penalties, fining people directly from their bank accounts or even freezing accounts. Cato Institute has called the move a “threat to freedom.”

China’s social credit system is clearly stepping on people’s rights, but is it the all-powerful algorithm we envision?

What China’s Social Credit System Isn’t — Yet

People often wrongly portray China’s social credit score system as some omnipotent AI apparatus automatically scoring citizens on their every behavior. The reality is it’s more of a series of social credit experiments distributed across China. The systems differ between provinces and territories — some places haven’t even implemented one yet. 

China is still working on a country-wide social credit score system

In some small towns, the local council hires “investigators” to simply walk around to catch people misbehaving — pretty low-tech! 

In more built-up areas like Beijing, facial recognition surveillance is already in use. China is world-leading in high-accuracy facial recognition cameras and is estimated to have one camera for every seven citizens. The government uses facial recognition cameras to catch and publicly shame people for misdemeanors as slight as jaywalking.

In other words, the system is more fragmented, localized, and disorganized than it’s been portrayed. So, why all the panic in the global press?

RongCheng — The Prototype That Shocked the World

In 2013, the Chinese city of Rongcheng made headlines experimenting with a social credit system that ranked citizens’ social behavior with a number. Certain behaviors add to the score, while others subtract from it. An AAA rating brings with it an array of benefits, while a D rating results in a loss of privileges and even basic rights. 

The local government defines the behaviors that are encouraged and those that are frowned upon. One worrying part of the outline urges citizens to report people “participating in futile superstition or “cult” organizations.” 

Clamping down on religious freedom is nothing new in China. According to Human Rights Watch, “China continues to violate the right to freedom of religion” and “harsh prison sentences and violence against religious activists are still reported.”

It’s also difficult to ignore the irony that the government’s idea of “trustworthiness” involves encouraging citizens to snitch on their neighbors to win favor from the state. 

In RongCheng, punishments imposed on citizens whose score falls below an “acceptable” level include:

  1. Reputation punishments like public naming and shaming 
  2. Reduced access to government benefits and support
  3. Higher routine scrutiny 
  4. Restrictions on participation in government projects
  5. Restrictions on attending regular business functions
  6. Restrictions on market entry or professional qualifications

Fortunately, Rongcheng’s social credit system is not yet a countrywide phenomenon, but similar projects are taking shape. 

How Does China’s Social Credit Score Work?

The government aims to monitor and discipline society through

  • Data collection and sharing
  • Blocklists and ban lists
  • Punishments, sanctions, and rewards

Critics worry the system grossly infringes upon citizens’ privacy and human rights and that it’s an invasive censorship tool. It also encourages citizens to turn on each other.

The People Have Sharp Eyes

It was Chairman Mao who first pointed out that “the people have sharp eyes.” Today, China’s Sharp Eyes Project is a nationwide system that relies on CCTV cameras, as well as citizens spying on their neighbors to keep law and order. 

This is how Senior Writer at OneZero, Dave Gershgorn described the Sharp Eyes Project:

“Through special TV boxes installed in their homes, local residents could watch live security footage and press a button to summon police if they saw anything amiss. The security footage could also be viewed on smartphones.”

The project bears a striking resemblance to the surveillance state engendered by the Stasi government in East Germany — except this time keen-eyed neighbors are equipped with CCTV footage.

Private Sector Plays Along

It’s not just the government that’s invested in putting the system together — private firms are also getting involved. The fintech arm of Alibaba, for example, led the way with its private financial credit scoring and loyalty program, Sesame Credit. 

Sesame Credit relies on citizens’ borrowing behavior and transaction history within Alibaba’s platforms. As such, it’s limited to analyzing data from its own platforms and is far from comprehensive. Even so, it represents an important precedent. If all companies decided to track consumers and pool information, it’d be one step closer to the absolute surveillance China’s going for.

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How Many People Are Under the Social Credit System?

The questionable reliability of data coming from China makes it tough to estimate how many people are under a social score system. Restrictions on free reporting mean information sources are scarce and often contradictory.

Data from the People’s Bank of China indicated the system had incorporated 1.02 billion individuals and 28.34 million companies by 2019. In 2019, the Chinese government claimed 13 million people had been deemed untrustworthy. This contrasts greatly with sources like MIT Technology Review which states the system is scattered and fragmented at best. 

This inconsistency reflects the general issue of censorship and free reporting in China. It’s hard to get reliable information when journalists and reporters are constantly penalized for speaking out.

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How Does the West Compare?

While China appears to be leading the way when it comes to surveillance and social credit scores, the US, EU, and UK have plenty of privacy and censorship issues of their own. AI surveillance is growing in the US and the EU and a slew of new laws is making it easier for Western governments to carry out mass surveillance on citizens. 

For example, the EU’s Digital Services Act focuses on removing “illegal” content and making it easy for netizens to report each other. The recently passed UK’s Online Safety Bill allows the government to undermine end-to-end encryption to spy on citizens indiscriminately. 

Governments around the world are also experimenting with central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). These pose a serious threat to financial privacy and personal freedom. Unlike Bitcoin which is decentralized, CBDCs are an ultra-centralized form of currency. Your government would have full access to your financial history and resources, making you extremely easy to track and control.

The Carrot & the Stick 

China’s social credit system continues to evolve and frighten the world with its implications. Contrary to the all-seeing eye people envision, however, China’s social credit system is still largely localized and applied piecemeal. 

Even so, as technology continues to develop, the parts could come together into a frightening, inescapable whole. The AI-powered Big Brother may be just around the corner. Even so, the same can be said anywhere. Surveillance has become a real and present danger worldwide. It’s easy to point the finger at China, it’s harder to come to grips with changes closer to home. 

With the many laws recently introduced in the US, Europe, and the UK that threaten citizens’ privacy, is the rest of the world really that far away from implementing its own version of China’s social credit system? 

FAQ

What is the social credit score in China?

China’s social credit score system is a government program to assess citizens on their “trustworthiness” or “Chengxin.” In some places in China, individuals are rated based on their financial creditworthiness and even social behavior. This score reflects their credibility and affects their ability to operate freely in society. 

Do Chinese people have social credit scores?

Some Chinese citizens living in China have social credit scores. However, not all Chinese citizens living in China are subject to this system, and it doesn’t affect Chinese people living abroad.

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Do foreigners have social scores in China?

The Chinese government’s social scoring system only concerns Chinese citizens. However, it affects businesses too. If you’re doing business in China, speak to a local legal professional and local authorities for advice. Since rules differ between regions, information from the internet might not always be reliable. 

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42 Comments


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  1. Kumar Dickson

    Good Day, I am a registered private money lender. We give out loans to assist people, firms who need to update their financial status all over the world, with very Minimal annual Interest Rates as Low as 3% within a year to 30 years repayment duration period to any part of the world, If interested kindly contact this email > [email protected]

    8 years ago
  2. theDisabler

    While much of what you’ve written is indeed Orwellian in nature, please note that much of your information is inaccurate. Sesame Credit is run by Alibaba’s financial arm, while Tencent has its own credit rating system. Both of these, while licensed by China’s Central Bank, are completely independent of the government’s social credit platform aimed for 2020, at least as of now. Furthermore, how each platform gathers it’s data is different from one another, unlike what you have suggested above. Though I do agree with your overall sentiment, I would highly appreciate it if you, someone who claims to know about sensible information, would sensibly fact check on the information you disseminate.

    8 years ago
  3. James Dean

    If you say something politically incorrect in the United States, you will get fired. What’s the difference?

    8 years ago