China’s Social Credit System (SCS) is not from an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, but a real-life human rating system to encourage and likely enforce trustworthiness in its 1.3 billion citizens. Chinese government authorities who’ve created the initiative have described the approach as a desirable one. The SCS policy states that it "will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility." Is the SCS a solution to address a dire need for more social cohesion in China, to further accelerate its economic development based on “sincerity” and credit, a form of mass surveillance and control sanctioned by the government, or all three?

As reported by Wired, Rogier Creemers published a translation of the SCS plans and compared it to "Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder." While many factors will inform one’s score, including the way you spend your money and pay your bills, most of it seems to align well with China’s millennia-old cultural value system, whereby deference to authority, adherence to a rigid hierarchy, “face”, honor and collectivism top the list. While certain individualistic traits may abound in younger Chinese, the SCS appears to reject a growing mentality that says “stand out from the crowd!”, a pseudo-foreign way of life taught to many Chinese over recent decades by way of globalization.

In basic terms, the SCS is an explicit, big data-driven attempt to impose a rigid value system from the top-down. At first glance, it is a radical approach to minimizing undesirable behaviors and inherent individual-level diversity in favor of upholding a “gold standard” defined by the state. However, for those of us in cultures where individuality is prized, we ask at what cost does China impose such creativity stifling measures?

Under this new rating regime, few behaviors will go unnoticed and undocumented. What you buy, where you buy, what you post on social media, the people in your network and where you travel will all be tracked by a variety of algorithms embedded in the everyday apps and resources that Chinese use. It’s important to note that most of this activity is also monitored in many societies around the world (i.e. how Google and Facebook serve ads tailored to one’s browsing history). What’s new is that the SCS places a value judgment on what you do, instead of simply tailoring the way a company positions and sells products to you.

For example: Want to complain about a state-owned enterprise on social media? Your score will plummet. Connected to friends that complain about state-owned enterprise on social media? Your score will also fall. In a highly networked society, where interpersonal relationships are key to almost everything, who you bring into your inner circle of friends and associates matters and will matter in a radical new way with the SCS. All of this is designed to push Chinese citizens to willingly avoid behaviors that lower their status and adopt those that enhance it. To avoid social death and ostracization, one will need to truly adhere to the Chinese proverb that says, “The rafter that sticks out is the first to rot”.

The system is currently in the pilot phase and opting in is voluntary, but many have clamored to get in, for a variety of reasons. Status and a certain flair for showing off seem to depict a large swath of the “early adopters”.

Wired reports that “higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen's score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.”

In our experience as interculturalists, Chinese tend to align most with their US American counterparts when it comes to underlying motivation for everyday day life. In other words, both cultures derive motivation from the same place. Which of the following statements applies best to you?

“I work to live.” 
“I live to work.”

If you veer towards “I live to work”, then you fall into a camp where many US Americans and Chinese exist. The typically Chinese penchant for achievement in education, business or in one’s personal life is what proffers great status, and status builds up one’s “face”, which leads to strong connections with other high “face” people and ultimately to greater opportunities by supporting and doing favors for people in one’s network. This is the virtuous cycle that has informed Chinese business for centuries. In a society that is highly suspicious of people outside one’s in-group and highly risk- and failure-averse, what better way to fast track one’s evaluation of a person’s trustworthiness than to view their SCS score?

Professor Wang Shuqin of the Office of Philosophy and Social Science at Capital Normal University in China is helping the government develop the SCS. She told Wired that “doing business in China is risky…as about half of the signed contracts are not kept. Given the speed of the digital economy, it's crucial that people can quickly verify each other's credit worthiness.”

This very pragmatic interpretation of the initiative, with a fast track to building trust and making reliable deals, is quite strategic because many deals are never fulfilled, which impedes economic development. In China, building business relationships is an infamously protracted process, especially for foreigners who don’t know up from down. For non-Chinese, successful business development typically involves lots of travel to China, numerous meals, entertaining, countless meetings and never-ending negotiations for Chinese to gather as much evidence as possible that a person or business won’t renege on their word. While the SCS won’t apply to foreigners, it will impact business between Chinese. The SCS intends to eliminate some of the need to go through each of these steps. Does this initiative imply a state-inspired shift towards more transactional, less interpersonal business behaviors? What impact will this have on general social interaction between the Chinese?

“Gamified Obedience”
Wired put it this way: the Social Credit System “…is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system. It's gamified obedience.” It plays to an essential human urge to collect and in turn boast about one’s collection, which in this case forms a reputation or a “face” about which Chinese have always been highly concerned. While this may be “good” for invigorating the Chinese economy and enhancing business practices, how will the SCS impact individual level diversity, creativity, and innovation when compelling incentives force Chinese to conform to a standard of behavior informed by the government or else face social and economic demise?

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