Understanding the Humble Origins and Limited Scope of China’s Social Credit System

No government has lifted so many people out of poverty in such a short amount of time as has China’s. In the late 1970s, 88% of all Chinese were legally impoverished while today that figure is less than 2% and will likely fall to 0% by the end of 2020. As Chinese have become accustomed to higher living standards at home and have become more cash rich, many began exploring international tourism for the first time in the history of their families.

As a result, Chinese primarily from outside of major urban centres found themselves on aeroplanes, at airports and in foreign lands where Chinese is not widely spoken for the first time. As one might expect, such culture shock did not always treat the new travellers or the new hosts of these travellers well. It was at this time that Youtube became filled with videos of “Chinese tourists out of control” while even prominent US funded anti-China so-called “NGOs” piled on the scorn, collectively blaming the Chinese nation for the eccentric behaviour of a minority of Chinese tourists whose humble origins meant that they had no concept of how to behave abroad nor even a concept of how aeroplanes work. For example, one such tourist tried to open the emergency hatch on a plane in an attempt to have a cigarette break. Clearly, such behaviour was a result of innocent ignorance rather than anything consciously malicious, but still Beijing agreed that something must be done.

While some cultures revel in having a reputation for producing ill-mannered tourists, China’s government took the charges against some Chinese tourists very seriously. As a result, policy makers in Beijing developed a system to monitor the behaviour and habits of Chinese at home in order to determine whether they are ready to be a proficiently well-mannered tourist. While not strictly an exit visa as such, the so-called social credit scores earned by Chinese determined whether they would be approved or prohibited from purchasing a ticket to fly outside of China for a vacation.

It must be stressed that while the invention of the so-called social credit system is an internal Chinese matter and nothing beyond, it is true that it was statements from the outside world complaining about a certain type of Chinese tourist which inspired the system’s creation.

Today, the system looks to gradually expand to include a social credit score that can come into play when one is applying for a loan, attempting to acquire property either as an owner or tenant, as well as something that can be used as one of many criteria on certain forms of job applications such as those involving the education and supervision of children. In respect of businesses, the social credit system will be used to monitor companies who sell unhygienic food, unsafe products or counterfeit goods (a long standing demand that the US has in fact directed to China).

Before discussing the particular virtues or vices of this system, it helps to remember that it is effectively a deductive outgrowth of the credit scores that have been used for decades in capitalist countries to determine one’s eligibility to conduct various kinds of financial transactions, including the same kind of transactions which will be impacted in China by ones’ social credit score. Thus, for those complaining that existing credit score systems focus too much on numbers and are “obsessed with money” rather than the overall picture of the person in question – such people should run to embrace the Chinese system as it considers the human/humane qualities of an individual over and at times above simple monetary factors. Furthermore, many nations including many European Union nations have for many years forced anyone working around children to go through a full criminal background check. China’s system merely streamlines and simplifies such a process.

Secondly, when it comes to digital surveillance, it should be noted that China’s system is vastly less intrusive than that which the American NSA conducts against its own citizens as was revealed by the now-exiled American whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

To recap: China’s system was implemented due to people complaining about the presence of certain allegedly ill-mannered Chinese tourists and the system’s expansion actually eases one’s financial burden of proof before engaging in certain translations or professional behaviours. The system furthermore ensures that those working with children have a law abiding and upstanding character while the Chinese system likewise holds businesses to account in terms of product safety and authenticity, all the while remaining far less intrusive than what George W. Bush and Barack Obama allowed the NSA to do to ordinary Americans.

Yet in spite of this, the reaction from many US commentators has been one of total hysteria. It seems as though some people living in a country where the government can read your emails, your private social media interactions, spy on you through modern televisions and even modern cars find what China is doing to be somehow shocking and aberrant. It beggars belief that the same people living in a country where one could find him or herself homeless because of a poor credit score are scoffing at the concept of non-numeric factors being considered in such instances that if anything would favour the position of a well meaning person who hasn’t yet got it together when it comes to personal financial responsibility.

And yet there is no doubt that China’s system would be totally unconstitutional in the United States (unless it were voluntary). However, it is equally true that the activities of the NSA in the United States are also totally unconstitutional in the American context, but this has not stopped them from violating the legal rights of American citizens on an hourly basis.

Therefore, one can only surmise that the obsession that some American commentators have with the Chinese social credit system is due either to total misinformation about the origins and limited functions of the system or otherwise it is a product of unadulterated racism as when George W. Bush and Barack Obama implemented unconstitutional policies in the US which go far beyond China’s social credit system, few raised their voice to question such methods let alone to oppose them.

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