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The Historical Roots of the Social Credit System

During the Cultural Revolution, Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, was purged by student militants following Mao’s call to “bombard the headquarters”.  Xi Zhongxun was a senior Communist Party official and was forced to flee to the countryside after his home was ransacked by Red Guards. As a result, Xi Jinping spent seven years in exile in a rural village, lost a sister, and was almost imprisoned as a child delinquent of a former party elite.  A son of the Cultural Revolution, Xi Jinping currently rules with no term limit and is known for hard, authoritarian policy measures, particularly by monitoring people’s daily actions to prevent dissent. While most are shocked at China’s envisioned 2020 Social Credit System (SCS), which is an extensive participatory system to collect data on citizens, it is reminiscent of the policies that created an erosion of trust during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1967). This system, which judges citizens’ behaviour and creditworthiness, resembles the fear-inculcating state-administered work units of Mao’s era, which sought to  expose “rightists”, or counterrevolutionaries. As such, the SCS has historical precedent, mirroring the distrust created by Mao’s breakdown of the social fabric.

In June 2014, China unveiled a social credit system aimed to rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all aspects of their lives. The Social Credit System (SCS) will, allegedly, “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.”  The SCS measures five factors to determine a rating from 350 to 900: credit history, fulfillment capacity, personal characteristics, behaviour and preferences, and interpersonal relationships.  Two of the private companies involved in the collection of data for the SCS are affiliated with WeChat and Alibaba (social media and e-commerce conglomerates), platforms that already collect extensive data and monitor users’ messages. The SCS measures one’s ability to pay bills on time, verifies personal information, and tracks shopping habits; buying diapers demonstrates responsibility as a parent, while buying video games demonstrates idleness. Moreover, posting “positive” comments online results in higher SCS ratings, while criticisms of the government are flagged as “negative.” Not only do the scores of friends and acquaintances impact an individual’s, but also reports about others can raise or lower someone’s social trust level. While many in the West are shocked at the Orwellian, big-brother aspects of the SCS, it should come as no surprise for two reasons. First, the SCS represents a similar breakdown of social trust that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Second, the totalitarian rule and all-encompassing aspects of SCS is reminiscent of China’s work unit, that was only removed in the 2000s.

Reminiscent of the friends and families that turned on each other during the Cultural Revolution, the SCS enables citizens to report each other digitally in order to affect others’ social standings. Moreover, the SCS incentive structure operates similarly to the emphasis on social standing that occurred during Mao’s reign. Instigating the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged young people to overthrow hierarchies and purge authorities. To preserve one’s life and avoid social destruction, a “good” citizen had to prove their commitment to the revolutionary cause of overthrowing authorities. In the 21st Century, SCS perks include VIP check-ins at Beijing Capital International Airport and fast-tracking applications for a pan-European Schengen visa. High scores can even increase prospects of dating or marriage on Baihe, a prominent dating platform.

While the consequences are not as extreme as purging or death from beatings, low social credit scores have severe harms. People with low ratings have restricted access to travel, ability to rent cars, buy insurance or take out loans, enter civil service or journalism, and travel abroad.  Moreover, since 2013, China has been adding names to a blacklist of debt defaulters, with over 8.8 million debtors now on the list.  The names and personal information of debtors are publicized on websites, automatic phone messages, and screens on public buses. Some provincial courts, such as the Sichuan Provincial Court, have gone as far as leaving recorded messages on debtors’ phones: “The person you are calling has been put on a blacklist by the courts for failing to repay their debts. Please urge this person to honour their legal obligations.” In large numbers, these naming and public shaming efforts have caused blacklisted citizens to be prevented from flying 8.7 million times, denied from purchasing 3.4 million high-speed train tickets, and rejected from 170,000 executive positions. These punishments demonstrate how the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Moving on to the second reason, the SCS also create status divides for outstanding citizens and the rest, similar to previous eras of the work unit, or danwei. The work unit was an all-encompassing system that assigned class labels to Chinese citizens and emphasized absolute loyalty to the state, while ensuring that young Chinese were subject to “perpetual supervision.” Moreover, work units dominated all aspects of life, and the hukou, or household registration system, was tied to employer benefits. Units dictated whom cadres could marry, whether they were allowed to move, and how much clothing and food were to be allocated. This system bred “fear and compliance,” as violations of the Party’s rule not only led to reduced pay or worsened living spaces, but also, in more severe cases, the loss of employment, mobility, and social standing. Similar to the SCS, both structures assume total control over people’s behaviours in both their private and public lives, in ways that are only indirectly related to politics. By keeping track of friends and families’ online presence or consumption patterns, the state continues to emphasize the “model citizen” of the work unit. As Jonathan Spence writes in The Search for Modern China, one explanation for the scale of violence during the Cultural Revolution can be accounted by the seventeen years of top-down oppression in the work unit. This type of totalitarian rule contributed to the vigor with which Red Guards overthrew once-feared authorities during the Revolution.  

Moreover, the erosion of trust and public shaming of the Cultural Revolution have striking parallels with the methods of the SCS. To prove their “revolutionary integrity” and assume Mao’s designated responsibility, Red Guards eagerly overthrew authority and ousted anybody who had an inkling of relation to Western ideology. In 1966, a group of high-school girls murdered their deputy principal at the Experimental High School attached to Beijing Normal University, Bian Zhongyun. Bian was the first death of the Revolution, beaten to death with spiked wooden sticks after being labeled as a “counter revolutionary”. In incidents to come, the young cadres haphazardly identified their victims, charged them with anti-revolutionary behaviour, and marched them on the streets wearing self-incriminatory placards before large crowds. Victims often endured severe floggings from crowds, as resistance would indicate they are guilty, legitimizing the accusers’ cause. While not as outwardly violent, the public shaming techniques of punishment in the SCS flash publicized messages across bus screens and posted blacklisted names for people to leer at and condemn. Moreover, underlying the senseless killings during the Cultural Revolution was a mob energy based on little evidence but a desire to be on the “right” side of history. The algorithms used in the SCS are similarly reductive and lacking of context. For example, there is no way to distinguish between someone who missed a bill because they are a free-rider versus someone who did so because they were in the hospital. In addition, algorithms that filter through words can often neglect context, leading to the condemnation of people for criticizing the state when the comment may in fact be neutral. In addition, since people can affect each other’s scores, there is much room for opportunists to engage in slandering efforts of other citizens in order to increase their own standings; insofar as the claims seem worthy to the cause of “establishing credit”, they are likely to be accepted and be perceived as legitimate. In this culture of mutual distrust and rattling on acquaintances, the SCS, in many ways, digitizes the chaos and erosion of integrity during the Cultural Revolution.

In a top-down approach to maintaining authoritative rule, Xi’s surveillance mechanism continues to breed an environment of fear and obedience resembling distrust under Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In some ways, the precedent of the total breakdown of interpersonal relationships set the precedent for the SCS to take hold in modern China. The SCS elicits similar behaviours to the ones that people once demonstrated in the Cultural Revolution, and rewards and punishes these behaviours accordingly. Both then and now, the all-encompassing surveillance and control of people’s private lives result in similar environments of distrust.

Photo: “Mao Badge