How Chinese Citizens See Social Credit
Written by Chuncheng Liu, University of California San Diego
Grim depictions of China’s social credit systems (SCSs) have raised grave concerns. Some prominent politicians have described it as Orwellian, while others have downplayed its significance, calling it downright boring. What’s clear is that Chinese SCSs are more ambitious than FICO and other financial credit systems and extend their purpose. But what do Chinese citizens think of these systems, with their potential to reach far into the daily lives of citizens? What aspects of SCSs receive broad support, and where is support more limited? Who supports broad punishment measures from SCSs, and who is reluctant to see the state endowed with that kind of reach?
Chinese Citizens are OK with Some Kinds of Surveillance
To examine Chinese public opinion on state-centered SCSs, we at China Data Lab administered an online survey of Mainland Chinese urban adult residents between January and April 2020.
We looked at public views of both surveillance and subsequent punishment. First, we measured respondents’ opinions on state-centered SCSs’ surveillance by taking the mean value of responses to eight questions. Each question started with “The following options have been included in the SCS in different localities. To what extent do you support these options being part of the SCS?” and then offered the name of the option, such as “misbehavior on the subway.”
We then measured opinions on state-centered SCSs’ punishment by the same approach, using the mean value of a set of responses to seven questions. All the surveillance and punishment options were selected from existing or proposed state-centered SCSs.
Respondents, in general, weren’t particularly hostile to SCS surveillance by the state. The mean overall opinion score for state-centered SCS surveillance was 3.60 (Figure 1), which is above “neutral” and slightly under “somewhat support.” “Switching jobs,” which was proposed by one Zhejiang official as a data point to be included in one’s SCS records, was the least popular criteria (mean = 2.75) for inclusion in an SCS; it was also the only option that had a mean score lower than 3. People also have mixed feelings about placing protests and petitions within the scope of SCS surveillance.
On the other hand, people are favorably predisposed to placing “uncivilized behaviors” under state surveillance. A majority of respondents, for example, favored including misbehavior on the train or the subway and domestic violence in SCS. Notably, a significant proportion of respondents, over 40%, favored including individuals who “spread rumors online” in the SCS.
Figure 1. How Much Does the Chinese Public Support Including the Following Behaviors in SCSs
Now we know that Chinese citizens favor including certain offenses in SCSs. What, then, do they think about punishments stemming from this inclusion?
Chinese Citizens Don’t Favor Harsh Punishments from Social Credit
In general, the more damage or social impact a particular punishment had, the less supportive people were of that punishment. People were generally in favor of more mild punishments. The mean overall opinion score for state-centered SCS punishment was also 3.60 (Figure 2). Even for punishments which shared a fundamentally similar mode of action — publicizing blacklisted people’s personal information — the public was less supportive of exposure that might directly impact one’s immediate social network (e.g. exposure in their residential community) than publicizing the same information through the national credit platform. The least favored option was “restriction of children’s entry into private schools,” a punishment for people in the DSEL, one of China’s most prominent SCSs. This low level of support may have its roots in the fear of collective punishment (lianzuo) that has been historically common in China. Interestingly, the most favored option was to use a low SCS score to disqualify individuals for civil service, indicating people’s high expectations for public servants.
Figure 2. How Much Does the Chinese Public Support Including the Following Behaviors in Punishment Stemming from SCSs?
Now we know what people support insofar as what gets included in a SCS and what punishments should come from inclusion in an SCS. What, then, do we know about who supports expanding SCSs?
CCP Members Support SCSs Less
More detailed analysis further showed which social groups were more likely to support SCSs expanding their surveillance and punishment. Counterintuitively, I found that higher political capital does not necessarily mean greater support for SCSs. For example, members of the Chinese Communist Party are less likely to support surveillance and punishment by the state-centered SCSs than ordinary citizens.
Figure 3: Support for Surveillance by State-centered Social Credit Systems
These findings urge us to think beyond a common but simplified understanding of people’s ideological and policy preference in an authoritarian party-state. An elemental understanding is that those who are closer to the party-state are more aligned with the official ideology and policy. On the contrary, this survey shows that CCP members are sometimes more liberal than the masses.
It’s also important to remember that many state-centered SCSs also enforce more discipline for people working in the state sector than for the general public. As we mentioned earlier, public support for enforcing SCSs by removing one’s eligibility for civil services positions was quite high. This has played out in the real world already. In Rongcheng, aside from the municipal SCS that applies to every resident, the local CCP committee has an extra metric that only applies to the city’s CCP members which raises more requirements such as conducting regular volunteer activities. The tightening of control, which has been increasingly institutionalized under Xi since 2012, generates both dissatisfaction and caution about the expanding surveillance regime.
Overall, my research finds that Chinese citizens have a nuanced view of different kinds of social control entailed by Social Credit Systems. They might support certain punishments and reasons for inclusion in an SCS while opposing others. While most citizens are in favor of many aspects of SCSs, it’s worth noting that CCP members, perhaps more surveilled than most Han citizens, are slightly more opposed to draconian SCS measures than the rest of society.
Support for social control measures may be broad, but it isn’t unconditional.
Chuncheng Liu, is a sociology and science studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego. He studies how states and markets classify and quantify people, with a particular interest in the politics of algorithms. His dissertation project utilizes mix-methods to examine the contested logics and practices of Chinese social credit systems.
This blog is based on the result of the China From the Ground Up project. See project page for project description and methodological notes: https://chinadatalab.ucsd.edu/china-from-the-ground-up/