China’s ‘Ides of Control’ and Social Credit System

Arushi Singh, Research Intern, ICS

Image: A city notice board in Rongcheng displaying model citizens with high social credit scores
Source: South China Morning Post

Just as the “Ides of March” served as a warning and ultimately, signified a perceptible pivot for the Roman Republic, China’s social credit system in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has marked a new era for the “Ides” of control and surveillance. The social credit system in China has proved adept at acclimating to the new realities brought to the fore by the Covid-19 pandemic. The government in China has introduced specific stipulations to modify the requirements in the system including alterations for repayment provisions devoid of drawbacks and inducements for some companies to help control the pandemic. Obligations have also been presented, which entail businesses to desisting from price gouging on health merchandise. In 2020, the social credit system covered 1.1 billion individuals through an integrated China social credit system officially declared in 2014. Notably, the earliest forms of the social credit system have been tested since 2009 on a regional level. However, the genesis of the philosophy responsible for the social credit system has been propounded by scholars for centuries in the making. It has traced back to China’s “Warring States” Era.

At the end of the Warring States era, the Qin leaders encouraged the rule of law to nourish a well-ordered societal structure. However, the current Chinese leaders are focused on a code of conduct that emphasizes values which encompass inclusiveness, harmony, civility and morality to retain order as well as concord while harnessing compliance. Experts attest to the fact that the social credit system is an ecosystem of initiatives that share some fundamental commonalities. Subsequently, 40 trials have been conducted to establish the current social credit system nationwide with their own objectives, distinctions, recompense and castigations to establish the current social credit system nationwide.

One of the most profound influences for the social credit system appears to draw insight from the doctrine of Legalism, which rose from the ashes of the Warring States era (475-221 BCE). The Chinese terminology fa-jia for legalism encompasses more than just law. It includes approaches, norms, and impersonal guidelines. The Legalists promoted in practice and works the usage of law as the primary tool of government wherein the focus was on punishment and reward. Their distinguishing attribute was the importance placed by them on the usage of law to expand the power of the sovereign besides the authority of the State. The Legalist thought, particularly regarding the law, may well be understood in the Austinian interpretation of law wherein any orders by the ruler are backed with a threat of force. The commentators have projected that the chief objective of the Legalists was to formulate policies that would better the martial and financial position of the state. This policy construction was also motivated by the political and societal circumstances during the Warring States era. The implementation, however, required the employment of a centralized authority directing the accumulation of power for the sovereign. The sovereign exerts this power via a system of bureaucracy with strict accountability and governance accomplished through laws that all citizens understand. Therefore, legalism controlled not only the citizenry but the bureaucracy as well.

This control is exercised through the mechanism of penalties and rewards in the current social credit system. The disadvantages are significant and are enforced by a range of current methods used by the government to ensure power encompassing the “hukou” system, detention, and incarceration for dissenting deeds or even the articulation of nonconforming sentiments. The social credit system was envisioned in 1999 under Zhu Rongji, who wanted to alleviate the complexity of external firms in obtaining data on their Chinese associates. The system was considered in official papers exclusively in market reforms. However, the real breakthrough came during the 2014 Five Year Plan (FYP), which encompassed the online revelation of the identity of citizens who have been chastised and those who have been compensated. Furthermore, there has been an enhanced congruence under President Xi Jinping of the legalist philosophy, who uses numerous quotations from legalist scholars in his speeches. Xi is the focal point of China both administratively and spiritually, and the power structure is etched to bring about his interpretation of law and policy.

The administrative control is additionally exercised by other developments, including the publication of “black list,” which heralded the penalties, and “red list”, which touts access to improved privilege for the citizens according to their actions which have been intensely documented through the vast surveillance network in China. There is also a list for companies called the irregularity list, which acts as a warning to improve scores. This further underscores discussions on privacy in China which are pretty different from the Western notion. Researchers have proposed that traditional Confucian philosophy praises morality rather than deference to individual rights as the basis for social interactions. Furthermore, privacy has conventionally entailed familial familiarity or dishonorable/scandalous secrets. On the other hand, the law in China is concerned with privacy as a right to protect one’s reputation against insult and libel. Notably, the governmental authorities have also maintained a dang’an, a dossier composed of detailed information about citizens residing in urban areas, which appears to have had a desensitized impact on privacy concerns.

Strategic analysts have also reflected upon the novel surveillance culture intending to essentially eradicate the apprehension and the prospect of observation of historical, Confucian-inspired conceptions of virtue. The emerging surveillance culture is prompted to imbibe the attributes and evaluate the citizenry through the social credit system on their perceived capacity to assist or impair the state. Thereby, a noticeable change in the surveillance change is witnessed wherein there is a purging of traditional Confucian conceptions such as the face, both of its inner moral dimension and its external, socially constituted dimension. Scholars have also noted that the credit score’s rationality is founded on social discipline, which is then reinforced by official public-private partnership rather than the Confucianism’s “face.” Furthermore, this step expands across an array of exchanges by citizens. For instance, big data is being employed to construct more effective policymaking and enforcement. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has spotlighted on the limitations of surveillance systems. However, a pattern can be observed wherein novel technologies are utilized for the attainment of better social control and social management. Thereby, tackling social dilemmas and sequestering social instabilities.

Consequently, in its current reincarnation, the social credit system is expected to track every act and transaction by every Chinese citizen in real-time and respond to the aggregate of a citizen’s financial, societal, and ethical conduct with incentives and punishments. This dream is aided by ubiquitous algorithms designed to generate fiscally valuable, socially harmonized and politically obedient citizens who self-censor and restrict. Consequently, the corporate social credit can be utilized as a trade war weapon in an informal capacity by regional officials or an implicitly authorized order by the government. Furthermore, this system has a higher export value which is likely to interest other authoritarian and totalitarian systems worldwide.

The author is thankful to her mentor, Dr. Bhim Subba, Assistant Professor, University of Hyderabad. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.