China: The social credit system (SCS), including how citizens are ranked and factors affecting social credit scores; how a social credit score affects a person’s livelihood and their ability to access social services, documents, and to travel within and exit the country (2017-December 2019) [CHN106377.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Overview of the SCS (社会 信用 体系, shehui xinyong tixi)

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) describes the SCS as a "highly complex, albeit evolving, technologically enhanced system of social control" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.159). Sources indicate that the SCS aims to "monitor, shape and rate behaviour (social credit score) via economic and social processes" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.159) or assess, manage, monitor and predict the "'creditworthiness'" and '"trustworthiness'" of citizens, firms, organizations, and governments in China through a "computational score" determined by their current and past social and economic activities (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 415).

In an academic article on the SCS in China, authors Mac Síthigh and Siems indicate that the PRC State Council's Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020), which constitutes "the basis of the development of the Social Credit System," establishes that the SCS aims to "promote 'integrity in government affairs', 'commercial sincerity', 'social integrity' and 'judicial public trust'," by targeting not only individuals but also companies, the judiciary, and other government bodies (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13). According to the authors, this Planning Outline elaborates that the "ultimate goal" of the SCS is "a uniform social credit system based on penalty and award mechanisms," but that the document presents this system "in a general sense, with no references to quantitative measures and the collection of online data" (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13). However, some sources indicate that the SCS aims to produce a single score for each citizen (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 425; Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.167) and reportedly includes technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data collection and analysis (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.159).

An article on the SCS published in the Journal of Policy & Internet, authors Liang et al. argue that "[w]hile the SCS is widely described by the Western news media as a means of 'big brother' or political control, we find that it is a complicated system that focuses primarily on financial and commercial activities rather than political ones" (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 415).

Sources report that the SCS was scheduled to be implemented by 2020 (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 425; Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.162). However, in their article published in early 2019, Mac Síthigh and Siems write that "it would be premature to talk about 'the' Social Credit System in China. Rather[,] there are three different systems at the moment … which follow … different logics" (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 16). Australia's DFAT also notes, in its report published in October 2019, that the "full implementation of the SCS at the national-level is yet to be realised" and that the government "is yet to legislate for a uniform, nationwide SCS," while local-level SCS pilot projects "remain disjointed" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.162, 3.173).

Asia Society Switzerland, an "independent Swiss foundation" that is part of the global Asia Society network (Asia Society Switzerland n.d.), explains that the SCS "is only a small aspect of the Chinese surveillance apparatus, which includes increasingly sophisticated CCTV cameras, surveillance through mobile devices, number plate recognition and facial recognition tools. Those instruments are not (yet) interconnected" with the components of the SCS (Asia Society Switzerland Oct. 2018, parentheses in original).

2. Planned Infrastructure
2.1 Components

Liang et al. explain that the national-level SCS "is constituted by independent platforms owned by government agencies and private firms," where each platform deals with "distinct data and surveilled subjects" (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 430). Liang et al. indicate that the state is "working on integrating these distributed platforms into an all-encompassing infrastructural system," while describing this integration process as a "black box[,] since many details are unclear" (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 429-430). The article further explains that the data collected comes from a range of public and private sources (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 426). The authors state that some companies that have implemented their own credit rating platforms "are increasingly poised to cooperate with the government to establish the centralized data infrastructure" (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 431). Mac Síthigh and Siems further point out that it remains unclear how companies that are collaborating on the development of a consolidated credit rating (called Baihang Credit) for the national-level SCS will continue developing their own commercial social credit system (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 16). Sources indicate that it is unlikely that the national-level SCS will be fully implemented by 2020 (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Liang 17 Dec. 2019), due to the current inconsistencies among local-level SCSs (Liang 17 Dec. 2019).

2.2 State Agencies in Charge of the Implementation and Stakeholders

According to Australia’s DFAT report, four "key agencies" are in charge of establishing the basic infrastructure for the national-level SCS: the People’s Bank of China (PBC), the Supreme People’s Court, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and the Ministry of Commerce (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.163). Liang et al. write that more than 50 "central agencies" are to contribute data and are participating to the development of the SCS (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 429).

Australia’s DFAT report adds that "according to international media, the government is also working in partnership with several companies to nationalise the system, and to develop and coordinate technology and algorithms to determine the national citizen score" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.166). Sources similarly state that Chinese high-tech companies are contributing to the SCS, such as Alibaba (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 15; Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 425), Tencent and Baidu (Liang, et al. Dec. 2018, 425).

3. Current State of the SCS

According to Mac Síthigh and Siems, while the Chinese SCS has been described as a "big-data-driven comprehensive rating of all Chinese citizens" by the Western media, it is a "misleading characterisation of the current situation," since as of January 2019, the SCS was only made of three main components: China-wide blacklist systems, some "compliance scores" managed by pilot cities, and social credit scores issued by financial institutions (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 12). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, Fan Liang, one of the co-authors of the Journal of Policy & Internet article, also explained that the local-level SCSs across China "may not share data with [the] national SCS" and are "largely inconsistent in terms of indicators" (Liang 17 Dec. 2019).

Sources indicate that the national-level SCS does not yet have a single score for every citizen (Liang 17 Dec. 2019; Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Horsley 16 Nov. 2018). Furthermore, according to Liang, "[m]ost local systems do not include AI or advanced technology, and they do not collect data from social media or other web applications"; rather, Liang said, the "current version" of the SCS is still "low technology" and mainly based on data collected by government bodies (Liang 17 Dec. 2019). An article on the SCS published in Wired, an American magazine, states that there is "no evidence that citizens’ social media or purchasing data is being incorporated, at least not yet" (Wired 29 July 2019). An article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) similarly reports on an example of a local point system in Rongcheng’s administrative area where "there is no artificial intelligence, algorithm or other cutting-edge technology involved – it all boils down to pieces of paper and tedious manual labour" (SCMP 7 Feb. 2019). Liang further explained that local-level SCSs are more "a combination of pre-existing administrative data," and that the national-level SCS can be regarded as a continuation of China’s hukou system [1] (Liang 17 Dec. 2019).

3.1 Blacklist Systems

Mac Síthigh and Siems indicate that the SCS includes blacklists of "persons who have violated the law," which are maintained by various government authorities (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, who has conducted research work on the SCS in China, similarly wrote that "[e]ach administrative agency has created criteria for maintaining a blacklist that contains serious violators of laws under their jurisdiction" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). In particular, sources report that the Supreme People's Court maintains a blacklist of individuals who have failed to comply with court judgments (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13; Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.163; Wired 29 July 2019), which is also known as the "judgement defaulter’s blacklist" (Wired 29 July 2019). Wired states that while the Supreme People’s Court's blacklist includes "people who the government alleges did not comply with court judgments, for example by not paying fines," individuals can also be on the blacklist for "things like failing to formally apologize to someone they are found to have wronged" (Wired 29 July 2019). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

Wired reports that according to official reports, as of March 2019, more than 13 million individuals were on the Supreme People’s Court's blacklist (Wired 29 July 2019). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

Mac Síthigh and Siems indicate that in addition to the Supreme People’s Court's blacklist, examples of blacklists maintained by other government authorities include the Ministry of Culture and Tourism's blacklist, which contains the names of individuals who have violated transport regulations, such as smoking or carrying prohibited items (Mac Síthigh and Siem 1 Jan. 2019, 13). Mac Síthigh and Siems explain that "a degree of centralisation has taken place" in the management of the various blacklists (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13). Sources indicate that the names of blacklisted individuals are made public on a centralized website called Credit China [or China Credit] (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13; Wired 29 July 2019).

3.1.1 Punishments for Blacklisted Individuals

Daum indicated that the various state agencies that are maintaining blacklists have established agreements to take "limited enforcement actions" against persons who are on those blacklists of "serious violators" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). Mac Síthigh and Siems also mention that there is a system in place, called the "Joint Punishment System," that requires authorities to cooperate in the imposition of sanctions, which means that "a violation of the law can lead to a variety of sanctions"; for example, "it may start with a fine, but the perpetrator may subsequently be banned from flying or using high speed trains" (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 13). Australia's DFAT report also mentions "joint sanctions and rewards systems (JSRs)" established at the local, municipal and provincial levels (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.163). The same source elaborates that "[u]nder a JSR, a blacklisted individual or firm’s information is shared by a government agency, such as the Supreme People’s Court, with participating authorities who are required to take action against the subject of the blacklist" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.163). Sources indicate that punishments for blacklisted individuals include the following:

  • "Increased frequency and scrutiny in government inspections" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019);
  • Being "banned" from taking senior positions in companies (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.164);
  • "Consideration in giving out grants and other government business subsidies" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019);
  • "Consideration in granting permits, licenses, qualifications and other required government approvals (banning from receipt of awards)" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019);
  • "Consideration on bidding on government contracts" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019);
  • Being unable to send children to private schools (Wired 29 July 2019; Marketplace 13 Feb. 2018);
  • "[P]ublic shaming" through announcement of the blacklisting (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Wired 29 July 2019), including on social media (Wired 29 July 2019);
  • Being denied a credit card (Marketplace 13 Feb. 2018);
  • Limits on personal spending and purchases (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Marketplace 13 Feb. 2018);
  • Restrictions on buying property or obtaining a loan (The Globe and Mail 18 Jan. 2018); and
  • Travel restrictions, including plane and rail travel (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.164; Wired 29 July 2019). Wired reports that under the blacklist system, authorities have blocked the purchase of over 20 million plane tickets (Wired 29 July 2019).

According to Daum, travel restrictions are "almost exclusively" the result of being listed on the judgment defaulter’s blacklist (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). However, Australia's DFAT report indicates that authorities announced they would extend travel restrictions to "those who spread false information about terrorism and those who used expired tickets" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.165).

Sources report on the case of investigative journalist Hu Liu (Mistreanu 3 Apr. 2018; The Globe and Mail 18 Jan. 2018). According to Australia’s DFAT report, in 2013, Liu

published an article alleging extortion by a government official. Liu was sued for defamation, lost the case, and was ordered by the court to publish an apology and pay a fine. According to media, Liu claimed the court sought an additional fee, which he refused to pay, and he was subsequently blacklisted as "'dishonest'" under a pilot SCS. Liu is now blocked from booking travel, and any attempt is denied with advice "the transaction cannot be processed due to a Supreme Court blacklisting and/or legal restrictions." Liu has been unable to have the blacklisting reversed. Liu has also had social media accounts where he posted articles shut down, and his Wechat and Weibo accounts (with over two million followers) are now censored. (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.172)

A Taiwanese human rights lawyer and researcher is quoted in the Wired article as saying that the judgement defaulter’s blacklist of the Supreme People's Court is imposing "'layers of disproportionate, arbitrary, and wide-ranging punishments' on people who have largely already suffered the consequences of breaking the law" (Wired 29 July 2019).

3.1.2 Possibility of Being Removed from a Blacklist

Daum wrote, without providing further information, that the restrictions and punishments associated with being on a blacklist are "time-limited, and include methods for correcting incorrect information, or 'restoring credit' by correcting existing legal violations and making pledges of compliance," among others (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). He specified that some restrictions are removed "when the underlying violations are corrected or after a set period of time (usually up to 6 years) has expired" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). He added, however, that there are "some lifetime consequences, such as bans from getting certain professional licenses as a result of criminal violations or repeated lesser offenses" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019).

In contrast, the Wired article asserts that "it's not clear whether citizens can effectively get off the list if they're included on it by accident, or even if they fulfill their court-ordered obligations" (Wired 29 July 2019). Further and corroborating information on the possibilities of being removed from a blacklist could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

3.2 Pilot Cities Using Compliance Scores

Sources indicate that over 40 cities, or municipal and provincial governments across China have implemented local-level SCS pilot projects (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1567; Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 14). Sources note the following locations:

  • Shanghai (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 14);
  • Rongcheng in Shangdong Province (Daum 16 Dec. 2019; Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 14; Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.170);
  • Hangzhou (Liang 17 Dec. 2019; Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1568);
  • Suining in Jiangsu (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 14; Mistreanu 3 Apr. 2018);
  • Weihai (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1568);
  • Suqian (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1568);
  • Wenzhou (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1568);
  • Xiamen (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1568); and
  • Shenzhen (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.170).

Australia's DFAT report notes that "much remains unknown regarding the various and varied SCS pilots underway" (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.167). In an article on China's SCS published in the academic journal New Media & Society, author Genia Kostka wrote that the local-level SCS pilot projects "share an emphasis on inducing moral and law-abiding behavior by incentivizing citizens, businesses, social organizations, and government agencies to adhere to the law and regulations in selected key enforcement areas such as food safety and environmental protection" (Kostka 13 Feb. 2019, 1567). According to Adam Knight, author of an article on the SCS published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), several cities are using local SCS schemes "to emphasise the carrot over the stick" (Knight Oct. 2018, 8). In Rongcheng, international media report a system of points, with rewards including better bank loan terms and winter heating discounts (Australia 3 Oct. 2019, para. 3.170; Mistreanu 3 Apr. 2018; SCMP 7 Feb. 2019), as well as punishments, such as restrictions on financial credit and governmental job opportunities (SCMP 7 Feb. 2019). Mac Síthigh and Siems indicate that Shanghai also maintains an SCS called Honest Shanghai, which is voluntary and provides only "rewards for good ratings (i.e. no punishments for a poor one)" (Mac Síthigh and Siems 1 Jan. 2019, 14). Daum similarly elaborated by saying that in Shanghai, the score "is merely a promotional device to get people thinking about honesty, offering some nominal perks to those with high scores" (Daum 16 Dec. 2019). The same source further explained that

"demonstration cities" have experimented with point systems for individuals, but these are primarily an educational or promotional device. As with the corporate portion, "negative" information collected in these systems always relates to violations of law or legal obligations (contract). "Positive" information sometimes goes beyond legal compliance to include charitable giving, volunteer work, etc., but citizens are generally able to demand that this information not be disclosed. Central government authorities have made clear that these local "scores" cannot be used to deprive individuals of rights … (Daum 16 Dec. 2019)

The SCMP article reports on an example from Rongcheng’s administrative area, where in July 2018, the government published "a detailed regulation on credit management for petitioners" (SCMP 7 Feb. 2019). The article explains that under the new regulation, "petitioners who do not follow 'procedures' can be stripped of points or downgraded" (SCMP 7 Feb. 2019). The same source provides the following details:

Petitioners who plead their case near the site of big meetings at the central or local government level will have 50 points deducted, while petitions mounted in "sensitive areas" in Beijing result in an automatic D ranking. The same applies for petitioners who "make trouble" and "get used by the internet and foreign media". (SCMP 7 Feb. 2019)

Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Note

[1] A hukou is "[a]n official document issued by the Chinese government, certifying that the holder is a legal resident of a particular area" (Oxford Dictionaries n.d.).

References

Asia Society Switzerland. October 2018. "5 Things We Misunderstood About China’s Social Credit System." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Asia Society Switzerland. N.d. "About." [Accessed 6 Feb. 2020]

Australia. 3 October 2019. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: People’s Republic of China. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Daum, Jeremy. 16 December 2019. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

The Globe and Mail. 18 January 2018. Nathan Vanderklippe. "Chinese Blacklist an Early Glimpse of Sweeping New Social-Credit Control." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Horsley, Jamie. 16 November 2018. "China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real." Foreign Policy. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Knight, Adam. October 2018. "Credit: The God of China's Big Data Era." The China Dream Goes Digital: Technology in the Age of Xi. European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Kostka, Genia. 13 February 2019. "China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval." New Media & Society. Vol. 21, No. 7. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Liang, Fan. 17 December 2019. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Liang, Fan, et al. December 2018. "Constructing a Data‐Driven Society: China's Social Credit System as a State Surveillance Infrastructure." Policy & Internet. Vol. 10, No. 4. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Mac Síthigh, Daithí and Mathias Siems. 1 January 2019. "The Chinese Social Credit System: A Model for Other Countries?" EUI Working Papers. San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy: European University Institute, Department of Law. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Marketplace. 13 February 2018. Jennifer Pak. "Inside China’s 'Social Credit' System, Which Blacklists Citizens." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Mistreanu, Simina. 3 April 2018. "Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory." Foreign Policy. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Oxford Dictionaries. N.d. "Hukou." [Accessed 6 Feb. 2020]

South China Morning Post (SCMP). 7 February 2019. Nectar Gan. "The Complex Reality of China’s Social Credit System: Hi-Tech Dystopian Plot or Low-Key Incentive Scheme?” [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Wired. 29 July 2019. Louise Matsakis. "How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: professor of Chinese politics; professor of communications researching technology governance; professor of law specializing in internet technology; scholar in Chinese law and governance; scholar researching international relations and cyber policy.

Internet sites, including: ABC News; Associated Press; Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Bloomberg; China Daily; China Law & Policy; China Law Translate; creditchina.gov.cn; Financial Times; Hong Kong Free Press; The Huffington Post; People’s Daily; Time; Xinhua News Agency; 中国经济网 (China Economic Net).