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Central planning, local experiments

The complex implementation of China’s Social Credit System

The „Social Credit System“ is designed to monitor and rate citizens and companies in China and to guide their behavior. „It is a wide-reaching project that touches on almost all aspects of everyday life,“ the authors Mareike Ohlberg, Bertram Lang and Shazeda Ahmed write in the MERICS China Monitor „Central Planning, local experiments: the complex implementation of China’s Social Credit System“.

The authors analyze the current stage of the system’s implementation and they describe how it will likely function in practice. Their analysis is based on government publications, discussions in media and social networks, as well as pilot projects.

The authors arrive at the following main findings and conclusions:

  • China’s Social Credit System is an ambitious, information technology-driven initiative through which the state seeks to create a central repository of data on natural and legal persons that can be used to monitor, assess, and change their actions through incentives of punishment and reward.
  • The Chinese government presents the Social Credit System as a cure-all solution to a multitude of disparate societal and economic problems such as the lack of options to assess the financial creditworthiness of market participants, food security, and insufficient protection of intellectual property rights.
  • Neither party-state nor private media fundamentally question the need for the Social Credit System. Social media coverage suggests that many citizens have yet to grasp what the Social Credit System is and what its implications in their daily lives may be.
  • Even if the full vision of the system is not realized, the scope of this project is massive and will transform China’s legal, social, and economic environment significantly.
  • Several social credit pilot projects are already operational, testing new approaches of collecting data and using it to sanction undesirable behavior on a limited scale. These punishments offer unprecedented possibilities to surveil and steer the behavior of natural and legal persons and therefore would have far-reaching consequences if adopted nationwide.
  • National implementation is still at an early stage: many of the measures put in place are establishing foundations for sharing information between different departments of government.Media discussions of the information security and data privacy risks the system poses indicate a lack of consensus on how these issues will be regulated at the provincial and national levels.
  • The relationship between government and commercial actors will be a key factor to watch: Government agencies clearly depend on private companies’ technological know-how to roll out such a large-scale system. Conflicts and rivalry between bureaucratic and commercial players, however, could delay or even derail its implementation