Viewing China’s Social Credit System Through a Cultural Lens

Hong Kong street

A street in Hong Kong from Getty Images

In Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Barry Thatcher writes about understanding digital literacy across cultures. He points out that ethnocentrism about the way digital media will be used is common in U.S. research and theory. Thatcher advises technical communicators to consider the cultural aspects of a technology’s audience. He discusses the difference between individual vs. collective, universal vs. particular, and specific vs. diffuse. Thatcher uses China as an example of a collective culture. He writes that collective cultures “emphasize solidarity in relations, the common good of the group, and little need to focus on individuals.” By contrast, the U.S., Thatcher explains, values individualism.

An interesting case to examine how audiences view technology through a cultural lens is China’s social credit system. Recently, I read an article about China’s plan to monitor and rank its 1.4 billion citizens according to a social score in a system that punishes and rewards them for their behavior. Alexandra Ma of Business Insider reports the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020, but millions of people are already part of pilot programs.

“Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online,” writes Ma.

Ma reports that local governments in China monitor behavior, and millions of Chinese people with low social credit scores are being punished by:

  • Banning them from travel and hotels
  • Blocking their children from the best schools
  • Preventing them from working in state-owned businesses
  • Putting them on blacklists for getting government contracts or credit cards
  • Slowing their internet speeds
  • Confiscating their dogs

Those with good social scores, according to Ma, get more matches on dating websites, discounts on energy bills, and better interest rates at banks.

Reaction to the system seems to depend on cultural values. Simina Mistreanu in an article for the website Foreign Policy explains the system is meant to promote trustworthiness in China’s economy and society. On the website What’s on Weibo, an article by Manya Koetse compares media coverage of the social credit system on Chinese online media versus Western media. Koetse writes that in Western media the social credit system is described in dark ways such as Orwellian, dystopian, chilling, or creepy. Chinese reaction is more positive. A citizen is quoted saying, “I feel like in the past six months, people’s behavior has gotten better and better. For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”

These differences in the way Chinese media and Western media cover the story may be based in our cultural views. In China, the collective good is paramount, but in the U.S., we value individual rights. Most Americans would view a social credit system as an infringement of our freedom even though in the U.S. we do have systems that monitor the behavior of people and companies. We have financial credit scores, but they are mostly private and only accessed by authorized people and companies, and many states, such as Illinois, have banned the use of credit reports for job applications. The federal government maintains a no-fly list; however, it’s only for suspected terrorists. State and local governments have sex offender lists…only for people convicted in a court of law. Businesses may be rated through organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and websites like Yelp and Amazon, but these are not created by the government.

In my opinion, China’s social credit system is an interesting idea, but it would never work in the U.S. Americans would not want the government to have too much control over our lives. Furthermore, people would figure out a way to get around it and abuse it. Overall, its potential negative effects far outweigh its benefits.

Posted on November 9, 2018, in Digital, Social Media, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Angie,

    Wow! China doesn’t play! I had to chuckle a little at the absurdity of “Slowing their internet speeds” and “Confiscating their dogs” for social infractions. And the offense – “buying too many video games.” Can you even imagine someone coming to take your dog because you bought too many video games in the USA? I do my best as to stay under a rock when it comes to the daily news or the crazy that goes on in other parts of the world, so I had not heard about this at all. Your post has encouraged me to go read about this system in China.

    My husband had the chance to visit China a few years ago on a business trip and, while he had been dreading the trip, it turned out to be really great. He said that, many times over, his guide told him that American’s have the wrong ideas about China and the Chinese people. He mentioned specifically how we say, “I am going to send your dinner to some starving kid in China.” That is offensive to the Chinese people, he said, because they take very good care of the poor in that country – better than we do here in the US. I would love a Chinese person living in China what they think of this system and see if they see absurdity as we do, or if they see it as a good system to help keep the moral code.

    Studying other cultures is so fascinating to me.

    Rebecca

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I was shocked when I originally heard about China’s social credit system, but after reading Thatcher’s chapter, it struck me that I am viewing it through my cultural lens. China’s system seems scary in many ways, but it also solves a few problems that are going unaddressed in the U.S. It seems like so many people these days are breaking rules and getting away with it. I see people driving 100 miles/hour on the highway every day. There are stories on the news of drug addicts, porn addicts, and gamblers. People bully and harass others on the internet for sport, they don’t pay their bills, and they claim disability when they are healthy. It seems like there are so many ways people today are acting badly, and there aren’t enough social constraints to force them to straighten up. You can’t throw them all in jail. We already have the world’s largest prison population.

    China’s social credit system makes people act better. It’s a digital solution to an old world problem. In one of the articles I read, it said 90% of Chinese people had an A rating, and the 10% who are not following the rules are having to face consequences for their behavior. Of course, China’s system may take things too far. We all should have some privacy and not always have to follow every single rule. Plus, if there is a mistake, you should be able to fix it easily without being punished.

    I’m not saying I support a system like China’s, but if I look at it without a cultural lens, I can see the upside.

    Thanks,

    Angie

  3. Wow, the social credit system sounds like something straight out of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” My initial and continued reaction is fear and indignation. Who rates the individual? Do companies have access to that information? Who can manipulate the data? Is the rating tied to your voting or lack of it? My long view would be that it would turn people into clones of each other and discourage any kind of protest (which China seems to already do well).

    My husband and I have been part of a “friends of international students” program through UW-La Crosse for over a decade, and each year we get paired with an international student or two. For the last several years, we’ve had students from China. Those we’ve been paired with come here with the hope of getting a graduate degree and staying in the US. They also talk about the freedom of information available to them via the Internet. We’ll be seeing one of our students this Thursday for an early Thanksgiving meal. I’ll have to ask her her thoughts on this proposed system. Thanks for giving me something to chat with her about!

  4. Hi Angie!

    Amery already alluded to the Netflix show, Black Mirror, but they actually have created an episode that parallels this social system. The episode is called, “Nosedive”, and it follows a woman who desperately tries to improve her social score so she could go to a special event.

    Black Mirror totally played on the fear of this concept because it does sound Orwellian. I personally dislike the idea of a social system and would agree with you that it would not work in America. My colleague once wrote a story about a company who created an IoT device to help school administrators keep track of the bus commute. The device would let the administrators know if the bus was late, if drivers were deviating from their routes, etc.

    I remember reading some social media comments that felt this this was an overstep because they didn’t want schools tracking the bus commute. All and all, it shows that a western audience doesn’t take kindly to the idea of data collection and tracking.

    As technical communications and content creators, it’s important for us to be aware of how audiences in all cultures would react and feel about the content we may create.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    Thanks,
    Jeffrey

  5. Wow–would you say this social credit system compares/contrasts to Klout, a social media influence system that recently closed its doors? See https://www.zdnet.com/article/new-app-replaces-klout-for-social-media-influence/ for some of its successors.

    When it was at its prime, I know certain hotels and other businesses would give upgrades to customers with high Klout scores. See https://www.wired.com/2012/04/ff-klout/ But I always found it problematic because as someone who spent a lot of time online, my score was dreadfully low!

    This is an interesting topic to explore, especially given the pop culture references your peers have mentioned as well!

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