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China's social credit system is actually pretty boring

China's crackdown on big tech has put Beijing's "digital authoritarianism" high on the global agenda. Its ever-expanding surveillance apparatus, draconian restrictions on online games for minors and calls to ban "pig" content are a matter of concern; its draft regulations on algorithmic recommendation services are in many ways exemplary for the European Union and other regions. But the headlines, fixated on China's Orwellian control, exaggerated a much more mundane reality – most of the time.

China's Social Credit System (SCS) is the best example. For years, the system has made headlines around the world as the totem of China's ruthless techno-authoritarianism – and has actually blacklisted an estimated 10 million citizens and businesses. But this global narrative has ignored that the system was never designed as an algorithm-driven super-scoring system. There were local scoring systems that were largely fused with the SCS. But it was bizarre initiatives on the fringes of the system that are now limited in what they can do.

The main objective of the SCS is to improve the enforcement of laws and regulations. Food safety scandals are a recurring problem in China, as are occupational safety issues, wage arrears, and non-compliance with contracts and court orders. There were laws to address these issues, but enforcement was lackluster, and anyone caught could just go to the nearest province and reoffend. The SCS should help by enabling data sharing between authorities and introducing nationwide blacklists to force offenders to comply. The surveillance and repression of political dissidents or minorities has been left to other, more invasive initiatives such as the Golden Shield and Sharp Eyes projects.

China's crackdown on big tech has put Beijing's "digital authoritarianism" high on the global agenda. Its ever-expanding surveillance apparatus, draconian restrictions on online games for minors and calls to ban "pig" content are a matter of concern; its draft regulations on algorithmic recommendation services are in many ways exemplary for the European Union and other regions. But the headlines, fixated on China's Orwellian control, exaggerated a much more mundane reality – most of the time.

China's Social Credit System (SCS) is the best example. For years, the system has made headlines around the world as the totem of China's ruthless techno-authoritarianism – and has actually blacklisted an estimated 10 million citizens and businesses. But this global narrative has ignored that the system was never designed as an algorithm-driven super-scoring system. There were local scoring systems that were largely fused with the SCS. But it was bizarre initiatives on the fringes of the system that are now limited in what they can do.

The main objective of the SCS is to improve the enforcement of laws and regulations. Food safety scandals are a recurring problem in China, as are occupational safety issues, wage arrears, and non-compliance with contracts and court orders. There were laws to address these issues, but enforcement was lackluster, and anyone caught could just go to the nearest province and reoffend. The SCS should help by enabling data sharing between authorities and introducing nationwide blacklists to force offenders to comply. The surveillance and repression of political dissidents or minorities has been left to other, more invasive initiatives such as the Golden Shield and Sharp Eyes projects.

Still, the system had digital ambitions. In 2018 and 2019, central authorities named 28 demonstration cities to show the rest of the country the future of the SCS. Many of these communities, including Alibaba's hometown of Hangzhou, China, were talking about technologies like artificial intelligence and eager to partner with Big Tech to give the government new powers. But data from these cities shows that the SCS did not give them technological superpowers. Instead, China's vast bureaucracy is still struggling with familiar and ingrained challenges to bring the SCS's more ambitious ambitions to life.

Contrary to popular belief, cities are mostly aimed at businesses, not individuals. Nonetheless, legal representatives of an infringing company are also blacklisted in order to prevent a relapse elsewhere or under another company. At the national level, about 75 percent of entities targeted by the system end up on black lists – the so-called defaulters – because of court orders they ignored. The remaining companies are usually arrested for serious violations of the market – for example, for violations of food safety, environmental damage or arrears of wages. But much of the daily use of the SCS in these cities is mundane due to the fragmentation of the system and the inflation of results.

Fragmentation is a symptom that central authorities are unclear about goals and how to achieve them. This gives local authorities leeway to implement policies in creative or selfish ways, leading to numerous bizarre experiments. During China's first wave of COVID-19, the city of Anqing logged a blacklist of agonizing details, our research revealed. At one checkpoint, "the perpetrator" refused to heed the advice of the Chinese Communist Party on duty, used pliers to cut through a fence blocking the road, and tossed him aside. As a result, “the (Chinese Communist) Party flagpole was bent over the road by the fence” and “the perpetrator was then (run over) over the flagpole, damaging the party's flagpole. The damaged items were worth 20 RMB. "

And there are many other examples. Putian, China, uses the SCS to promote and reward well-known brands (without a clear reference to their “creditworthiness”) and publishes a unique “whitelist” for social credit. The Ningbo Environment Bureau blacklisted companies that “received criticism in the media and failed to correct their actions”. Wuhan officials said the city has issued SCS rewards to 240,000 citizens. Rongcheng accepts the prize for the most terrifying experiment: volunteers sniff around at neighbors who lose points for failing to clear snow from their porches, arguing with neighbors, and so on. (The central government has since said that scoring should not be used to punish citizens.)

Data inflation and accompanying propaganda are intended to make the system appear more effective than it really is. Chinese authorities regularly showcase their success in implementing the SCS. For example, by mid-2020, the 28 cities said they had collected 10 billion data together, more than 70 data points per capita. Anqing has reported that nearly 400 departments are feeding data into the system, and the Supreme People's Court believes the SCS helped recover $ 17.08 billion ($ 2.66 billion) in funds from defaulters .

Local authorities have many incentives to bloat data, which makes the value of their numbers questionable. Conspicuous numbers reflect those responsible positively and can initiate the next action. However, there is no discernible relationship between the data collected and the SCS implementation; The more data a city collects, the less it appears to be blacklisted. In Anqing, one department is responsible for 90 percent of the data uploads. Many departments in Hefei do not upload more than a hundred pieces of data a week – not very big data at all. A Chinese scholar has suggested that some of these initiatives could turn into white elephants.

Ironically, the main weakness of the SCS is a lack of digitization and standardization, not excess. Fragmentation and inflation may seem harmless, but they have far-reaching consequences. Room for interpretation means that local cadres can abuse the system. One city blacklisted a citizen over comments online allegedly causing panic over a local COVID-19 outbreak. In one district in Inner Mongolia, parents were threatened with blacklisting for protesting the enforcement of Mandarin curricula in local schools. And there is still little stopping local officials from ignoring crime by state-owned companies.

Ultimately, these challenges burden the SCM with many of the challenges it was primarily trying to overcome. Instead of streamlining China's bureaucracy into one comprehensive system, it remains divided into thousands of local islands of data. Instead of standardizing enforcement of market regulations, many officials can still do what they want. Beijing is aware of these issues and has adopted guidelines since 2019. But there will be no quick fix. These sober truths about the SCS suggest the world should step up its efforts to look beyond China's tech headlines and judge whether ambitions are really real.

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