The Chinese Social Credit System: Generational and Civilizational Differences among Chinese Citizens and Chinese Canadians

Ruth Zou, Staff Writer

26 September, 2019

Wikicommons: Beijing central business district skyline at night.

Wikicommons: Beijing central business district skyline at night.


There have been many accusations of the Chinese government oppressing and controlling their citizens. In recent years, the Chinese government has decided to be more transparent by announcing their intention to implement a Social Credit System back in 2014. Since then, the global community has raised their concerns about the level of privacy and freedom the system will allow. However, the opinions of the Chinese population have unmistakably been overlooked in these discussions. What if they love the system? What if they think it’s helpful? To fully explore this topic, one  must understand the system’s purpose and structure.

Simply put, China’s Social Credit System (SCS) is a policy project that aims to incentivize lawful, honest behavior and expand financial services. However, many claim that this project was born out of a lack of trust, which has seemingly become a serious issue over the past two decades. In fact, Chinese enterprises and people have suffered from a loss of more than 600 Billion RMB (about 85 billion USD) due to dishonest activities such as food poisoning, chemical spills, financial and telecommunications fraud and academic dishonesty.

The Chinese State Council introduced their intent with this social credit system in 2014 with vague ideas of how they plan to standardize the system by 2020. In 2015, the license of creating and testing the system with judicial organizations and government departments was given to many companies. Essentially, this has turned into a “tug of war” between giant tech companies and Chinese banks pining after this important government project. The pilots proposed by Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial, Tencent credit, Kaola Credit, Intellicredit and the four private companies were not granted a license to continue as the Chinese government decided there would be a conflict of interests. Only Baihang Credit run by the People’s Bank of China with assistance from the eight private companies mentioned above received the credit scoring license again for redevelopment in 2018. This means the Chinese government will have more control over the Social Credit System while being able to access all the resources they need. Besides the pilots run by companies, there are still many types of other credit systems run provincially and municipally by government officials and researchers. For example, city of Rongcheng is one place that assigns residents and companies individual social credit scores based social interactions and private matters along with financial standing. 

As of now, the social credit system remains fragmented at a national, provincial and municipal level with no cohesive structure. Ultimately, the primary focus for the Social Credit System is the nationwide blacklist and red list. Red is a lucky colour in Chinese culture, so the red list includes the compliant and good do-ers. On the opposite side, the blacklist would include the rule breakers and bad do-ers.

By 2020, China plans to make this reality by ranking, punishing and rewarding all their citizens with a social credit system. Currently, there have been many different pilots with many different reward and punishment system. Some of the punishments that could be and have been inflicted on people with low scores include travel restrictions, public humiliation, slow WiFi, education restriction on family members, less job opportunities, less access on dating websites and much more. These punishments are usually reserved for those owing huge debts, violent individuals, scam artist and extreme offenders. There are also punishments for irresponsible pet owners who do not properly train their pets or have them on leashes for walks.  One of the most severe consequences for this seemingly minor mistakes include getting the pet taken away. On the other hand, there are also many benefits that can come with the system. When people have a high credit, it usually insinuates that they are trustworthy and a good citizen. Thus, they get benefits like deposit free bike and car rental, deposit free hotel stays, expedited visa approval for countries like Canada and faster loan approvals.

To put this into perspective, imagine living in a world in which the government can see and judge your personal messages, credit score, debts and actions. If you litter, jaywalk or spit on the ground, they know  and then the consequences follow. Many would say this situation is darkly reminiscent of notable works of science fiction like1984 by George Orwell, Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” and the Orville’s “Majority Rule”. Many critics in the West condemn the Chinese government for following the model of a dystopian society, but the Chinese government argues that this system will create a Utopian society. To get a range  of opinions on the Chinese Social Credit System, I have conducted interviews with different ages of Chinese citizens and Chinese Canadians. After the interviews, I have come to realize that a lot of more senior Chinese citizens and Chinese Canadians value the positive economic, moral and cultural values the Chinese Social Credit System enforces. On the other hand, the Chinese Canadian millennials struggle with the Chinese Social Credit System’s principles as they believe in freedom, privacy and individual rights. 

 Many of you are probably asking, “why are Chinese people not rebellious toward this system that takes away their freedom?” This concern reminded me of something Mr. Li told me about China that a lot of us seem to always forget. He said, “China is not a free country and our government’s priority is public safety not privacy.”  Like most middle-aged Chinese men, Mr. Li loves to talk about Confucian principles. He explained that one wanting privacy and secrecy in Chinese culture is considered to be someone hiding something shameful. Like Mr. Li, many pro-credit system interviewees emphasized the lack of boundaries between private and public sphere as China is a collectivist society with collectivist values. Unlike most Western countries with individualist values of freedom and privacy, Chinese people are influenced by traditional culture values including harmony, benevolence, filial piety and honesty. Mr. Li then asked me, “Don’t you think a collectivist society is better? I think people from a true collectivist society try to be helpful, generous and good to others. Isn’t that what we all want?” One of my younger friends, Adam, rebutted this comment, “If the collective does not serve the individual then it does not make sense. Because if you’re oppressing everyone, is that still good for the collective?” He continued saying there is no incentive for the government to actually do good for the collective as China is not a democratic state and so there are no consequences for the government’s actions. 

Another middle aged Chinese Canadian, Mr. Chen, pressed that decisions should be made based on utilitarian values when it comes to Chinese population for the sake of not only moral reasons but also efficiency and productivity. My conversation with him uncovered the economic applications of the Chinese towards political policy. As known by many, China has been trying to control population movement from rural to urban areas due to housing economy, educational and environmental crises. In order to control population, people have a residency identification card for the district they have “city citizenship” and that will determine where people can reside and receive resources from. For example, if you have a residency identification card from a rural area, you do not get the same education, health and other benefits as people who with the card from an urban area. As a result, it’s very difficult to get residence permits in Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Mr. Chen mentions how this system plays a positive role in Chinese society helping people who have done good work get residence permits in the city. He states, “This is a must because we have limited resources and a lot of people. If we tried the American individualist way, China would be such a mess.” 

Many morality arguments can be made about the idea of distributing resources to people who are “good”. The problem of defining what being “good” entails is how do we remain objective on such a subjective matter. The system is good if it is trying to promote good incentives to increase social welfare; but leaving it to the single party state to decide what is moral or not can be a scary ideal. Based on the pilot programs run in China, the main activities the government is trying to promote include fiscal responsibility, filial behavior, friendly behavior between neighbors, respect for the environment, generosity to those who have less and patriotic behavior. These actions are all considered to be moral but being incentivized and/or forced to act good may not be moral. There the concern that people are “good” because they want benefits and not because they want to help someone. Mrs. Zhang, a middle-aged Christian woman, explained the morality behind the system with religion. Zhang stated the social credit system is good for Christian values  because it punishes anti-Christian action like fraud, domestic abuse and more. A younger Chinese born and raised interviewee, Mr. H, used the creature of habit argument to back the morality behind the system stating, “The thing is, if you give someone the motivation to be good, then eventually they may become a better person because of this. Hence, their actions will continue to reflect good morals.” One could say this rewarding and punishing system is, as referred to by Mr. H , forced karma.

Based on the interviews conducted for this article, it has been brought to my attention that most people who were born and raised in China generally have a very positive or indifferent opinion to the Chinese Social Credit System. One of my interviewees, Adam, explained that the Chinese population only feel this way because they’re ignorant to what reality is. He continued, “Cows on beef farms are happy until they are slaughtered. When someone makes a small mistake, they will be the cows.” 

 The names in the article have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.