China has been busily creating an elaborate, digital system of governance since Xi Jinping came to power. This year, the social credit system is set to cover all corners of China.
Undeniably intrusive and dystopian, within the system a blacklisted person can have their face recognized and displayed on electronic billboards after crossing particular intersections. The exact list of undesired behaviors have remained secret, but the punishments are as real as the perks.
Digitizing governance to make up for its weak legal system, capacities of this social credit system intrinsically limit political power at the same time. Evaluated by artificial intelligence, in official discourse the social credit system is free from bias and one-sidedness; of course, not downloading a Party-loving mobile app can jeopardize your performance review. Control of information is exclusive, and fake news is understood as information not released by the government.
The system is already being exported outside China. Foreign businesses, those living in China or even tourists, are demanded to adopt Chinese values on politically sensitive issues. Dictating the management of its “internal affairs” and deterring what it considered as “foreign intervention,” China banned NBA broadcasting when players showed support for the anti-China extradition protests in Hong Kong is one recent example.
By September 2018, 14.6 million “untrustworthy” Chinese nationals were banned from buying plane tickets. By December 2018, 3.5 million Chinese nationals have reversed their “untrustworthy” status through various forms of community service. Many Chinese nationals have quickly adapted to this new way of discipline. It works. And now China is handing out its system to its neighbors.
China is in the process of rolling out a system of global governance with Chinese characteristics to match the massive size of its economy. This strategic agenda goes far beyond the Xi administration or the trade war. Beijing is working to draw other countries into its club.
On more than one occasion, China has made its governance expectations explicit in discussions, specifically promoting its very own social credit system to countries abroad. For example, in January 2019, the heads of the Chinese legal system hosted a promotional workshop to highlight the benefits of its social credit system. On the attendee list? Kazakh judge and a Laotian Ministry of Justice representative, among others.
In the name of Belt and Road, a China-led international social credit alliance began in October 2018 to built a credit information-sharing platform, participated by Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, Thailand and Myanmar.
Many countries, also with weak legal systems, share similar experiences with China and find Beijing’s promised automated model of policing appealing. Branded as “safe cities,” networks of Chinese surveillance cameras form the foundation of the social credit system, and they are already emerging all over the world, including in Central Asia. The Chinese government almost exclusively emphasizes the benefits of these camera networks for traffic monitoring.
But data from these cameras are certainly helpful in generating a base set of information which China can easily access, for more than speeding tickets. Just as it is impossible for Chinese nationals to hide, many countries are becoming entangled. It is not easy for a government to say no if China is offering these systems for free, or half the price.
“In 2020, China will conduct a feasibility run for social credit system in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia,” Russian expert Dr. Vladimir Ovchinsky, a member of the Council on Foreign and Defence policy, said in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda in December 2019. With Chinese software, servers and consultants, these are all tools China has in place to potentially keep tabs of foreign citizens from afar.
All of this is part of China’s Digital Silk Road, a piece of the Belt and Road Initiative, to expand information sharing and export Chinese technologies. The introduction of 5G will provide the necessary speed to support digitized governance.
On board with the Belt and Road Initiative, many countries have made the political choice to put the fate of their countries in China’s hands. The BRI aims to create and boost connectivity, and China has stressed the importance of building political trust between countries as a part of that larger scheme. Social credit systems factor in as generating “measurable” metrics for the desired kinds of loyalty.
On its surface, the social credit system is not advertised as an education in devotion to the Chinese Communist Party. Without mentioning its use to tackle terrorism, in its foreign promotions, China is increasingly associating the social credit system with the easing of trade barriers and added financial stability benefits.
Collecting personal information and cross-referencing various behaviors to build onto the social credit system, China’s Dagong Global Credit Rating, privately-owned and a pioneer implementer of the system, is a financial credit rating agency that was set up to as a Chinese alternative to rival Moody’s, Fitch, Standard and Poor’s country-level ratings. In April 2019, China Reform Holdings, a state-owned enterprise, took over Dagong.
Abroad, an aggregation of the scores of individual social credit ratings can add up a deviously useful measure for China of a country’s trustworthiness. These overseas individual social ratings can be calculated to measure political trust between Kazakhstan and China, which can provide incentive for the former to further prosecute anti-China activists. Domestically, China is already giving out cheaper loans for those committed to promoting the Community Party.
Chinese social credit systems abroad are not going to be strictly used for financial management. When nonfinancial offenses such as quarreling with neighbors can stop you from getting a mortgage, and political good deeds are rewarded anyone can be turned into an agent of the Chinese government. The Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments have for years supported China’s Xinjiang policy while taking cheap loans and foreign aid from China. Mix in a social credit system, in which an individual’s behaviors dictate their opportunities, and people have new motivation to do (and believe) as Beijing wishes.
Starting with or without China, individual governments, especially those with close trade relations with China, are already interested in using the social credit concept to speed up their financial credit systems. In March 2018, the Kazakh government approached relevant departments in the government of India, Turkey, Laos, Russia, Malaysia and Iran to collaborate on its “Credit Asia” initiative.
With objectives to increase financial risk control capabilities, the initiative has set up a cryptocurrency to trade for individual credit information. Beginning to pool individual data from participating countries, as it is urged in the 2015 Belt and Road white paper, China, too, wishes to intensify information sharing. It is a matter of time for when these governmental or private databases can be accessed by the Chinese government.
Worldwide, digitalization seems to be a synonym for development. “The Tajikistan government is giving all the data to us, for free, and we digitalize everything for them” an employee at CRIF, an Italian credit solution company, told The Diplomat. The World Bank, amongst others in the international community, has begun to lay the foundations for digitalization in the region.
What China has in mind next may be a cross-border social engineering system, built one software solution at a time.
Yau Tsz Yan is a researcher on China in Central Asia affairs at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and a graduate from the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached on Twitter @nivayautszyan