To this end, the latest bill speaks of the need to use “various methods such as statistical methods, modeling and field certification” to perform credit assessments and combine data from different government agencies. “It only gives a vague hint that it’s a bit more technical,” says Daum.
How are Chinese tech companies involved in this system?
Because the system is so low-tech, the involvement of Chinese tech companies has been peripheral. “Big tech companies and small tech companies…play very different roles and adopt very different strategies,” says Shazeda Ahmed, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University who has spent several years in China studying how tech companies are involved in the social credit system. .
Small companies, hired by municipal or provincial governments, have largely built the technological infrastructure of the system, such as databases and data centers. On the other hand, big tech companies, especially social platforms, have helped the system spread its message. Alibaba, for example, help the courts make judgment calls via the shipping addresses it collects through its massive e-commerce platform. And Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in partnership with a local court in China to publicly humiliate people who have not complied with court orders. But these tech giants aren’t really involved in basic functions, like providing data or compiling credit scores.
“They almost saw it as civic responsibility or corporate social responsibility: if you broke the law in this way, we will take that data to the Supreme People’s Court and punish you on our platform,” Ahmed says.
There are also Chinese companies, like Alibaba’s fintech arm, Ant Group, that have created private financial credit scoring products. But the result, like Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, is more like a loyalty program, according to several researchers. Since the Sesame Credit score is primarily calculated based on users’ purchase history and lending activities on Alibaba’s own platforms, the score is not reliable enough to be used by financial institutions. external and has a very limited effect on individuals.
Given all of this, should we still care about the implications of building a social credit system in China?
Yes. Even though there is no scary algorithm that scores every citizen, the social credit system can still be problematic.
The Chinese government has stressed that all social credit penalties must follow existing laws, but the laws themselves may be unfair in the first place. “To say that the system is an extension of the law only means that it is neither better nor worse than the laws it enforces. As China increasingly focuses on people’s social and cultural life, further regulating the content of entertainment, education and speech, these rules will also be subject to the application of credit,” wrote Daum in an article from 2021.
Moreover, “it was always about making people honest with the government, and not necessarily with each other,” says Ahmed. When moral issues like honesty are turned into legal issues, the state ends up having the sole power to decide who is trustworthy. One of the tactics used by Chinese courts to hold “discredited individuals” accountable is to encourage their friends and family to declare their assets in exchange for rewards. “Are you making society more trustworthy by denouncing your neighbor?” Or are you building distrust in your very local community? ” she asks.
But at the end of the day, the social credit system does not (yet) illustrate the abuse of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, and it is important to evaluate it on the facts. The government is currently seeking public comments on the November draft document for a month, although there is no set date for its adoption and entry into force. It could still take years to see the end product of a national social credit system.