By Dr. Sriparna Pathak*
Amidst growing concerns on infringement of individuals’ privacy worldwide, by social media sites, Chinese authorities in Anhui province stated that in Chaohu city, access had been obtained of entire WeChat conversations that had been deleted. Tencent, which runs WeChat has repeatedly denied that it snoops on user data. In 2017, according to a sweeping cybersecurity law, internet companies are to store all network logs for a minimum of six months, and store all user data on servers located in China. Additionally, new regulations urge social media companies in China to start rating people with a credit system, penalizing users by deducting their points for disobeying regulations. All these point in the direction of a massive overhaul of the system in the form of what is known as the social credit rating system in China. As is the case with any system that infringes on the private lives of citizens, the system is already drawing fire from several quarters. The World Report 2018, published by Human Rights Watch has taken a critical stance against the system.
In the context of the rights of Chinese citizens, it is pertinent to note that the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) enlists fundamental rights in Chapter 2. While the Constitution asserts that the citizens of the PRC enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration; the reality is that the practice of these rights is tightly proscribed, and under the auspices of maintaining social stability. In addition to the fundamental rights, the Constitution also declares that it is the duty of the citizens to fight against forces and elements that are hostile to China’s socialist system and try to undermine it. Anti subversion laws, an example of which is Article 105 of the criminal code can be used to criminally prosecute individuals seeking the assertion of the rights of free speech, assembly or demonstration. Despite this, a long tradition of political dissent is an integral part of Chinese history and owes much to Confucianism and Daoism.
The maintenance of stability is of utmost importance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the state spends enormous amounts on the maintenance of stability in the country. For example, in 2012, Beijing spent US$ 111 billion on its domestic security budget which covers the police, state security, militia, courts and jails. Also, the government currently employs around two million people who work as online monitors to maintain social stability. This two million outnumbers the country’s 1.5 million active military personnel. An addition to the methods used for the maintenance of stability is China’s social credit system.
The social credit system or 社会信用体系 shehui xinyong tixi is a government initiative for developing a national reputation system. It assigns a “social credit” rating to every citizen based on government data regarding their economic and social status. The system works as a mass surveillance tool and uses big data analysis technology. By 2020, as per plans, all of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens in the PRC will be given a personal score on how they behave. Some with low scores are already being punished if they want to travel. Reportedly, nearly 11 million Chinese are not allowed to fly and 4 million are barred from trains. The program is set to expand nationwide starting in May.
Similar to private credit scores, a person’s social score can increase or decrease depending on their behavior. Examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news, among others. The system is also meant to rate businesses operating in the Chinese market.
Punishments for unacceptable behavior include bans from flying or getting trains, reduced internet speeds, banning children of defectors from the best schools. In fact 17 people who refused to carry out military service last year were barred from enrolling in higher education, applying for high school, or continuing their studies. Another example of punishment was the ban of flight for Liu Hu, who was told of the reason of the ban as him being on the list of untrustworthy people. Liu is a journalist who was ordered by a court to apologize for a series of tweets he wrote and was then told his apology was insincere.
Other punishments include stopping defectors from getting best jobs and being publicly names as bad citizens. The adherents of good behavior reportedly get more matches on dating websites, and can also get discounts on energy bills, rent and better interest rates at banks.
The system is coordinated by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, and according to the overall planning outline for the construction of a social credit system (2014-2020), which was issued by the State Council, the social credit system will focus on the following four areas:
- Honesty in government affairs
- Commercial integrity
- Societal integrity
- Judicial credibility
Therefore, beyond the rating of citizens to mould good behaviour- which falls under the area of societal integrity, the social credit system is intended by the Chinese government to include the credit scores for all businesses operating in China. Commercial integrity therefore stands out as a separate focus area of the social credit system. Besides the intended credit system for business enterprises, American and European companies in joint ventures with state owned Chinese firms have been asked to give internal Communist Party Cells an explicit role in decision making. The efforts to keep tabs on companies have been seen as an expression of the CCP’s constant paranoia about internal stability. However, this could also be an action following Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress where he had called for the reform of state owned enterprises, making them bigger and stronger, as well as aiding China’s economy to transition better from a phase of rapid growth to a stage of high-quality growth.
The goal of the initiative according to the Planning Outline is “raising the awareness for integrities and the level of credibility within society”. The system therefore becomes an important tool to perfect the socialist market economy as well as strengthening and innovating the governance of the society. The Chinese government actually views it as an important means to regulate the economy, as well as a tool of governance through increased surveillance. The importance of governance and of the economy was stressed by Xi in his speech at the 19th Party Congress multiple times, and the social credit system becomes a tool to achieve the goals set at the Congress in this context. In addition to these, the system is meant to provide an answer to the problem of a lack of trust on the Chinese market, as it could help eliminate problems such as those of counterfeit goods, cheating and safety issue- all of which currently plague the economy. Additionally, this could also mean a reduction in what has to be spent by the state as its domestic security budget- resources which could then be spent elsewhere.
The social credit system is definitely futuristic as well as dystopian in nature, with high scope for subjectivity. While it is intended to usher in a better performing economy, what will also be strenuous especially for foreign companies is adjusting and learning the mechanisms of the system. As per existing laws, foreign ventures in any case have to be in partnerships or joint ventures with Chinese enterprises to function in China, and the lack of transparency and difficult and unclear legal procedures have been a constant source of concern for several foreign enterprises. An addition to those in the form of the social credit system could yield the opposite results, in the form of further relocation of foreign enterprises to other Asian countries.
About the author:
*Dr. Sriparna Pathak, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Nowgong College, Gauhati University
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.