Big Data in Action – China’s Social Ranking System Under the Microscope Part 1

The population of China is around 1.3 billion

Big Data in Action – China’s Social Ranking System Under the Microscope Part 1

Part 1 of this 2-article series looks at what the system is intended to achieve and the human side: how it works and the social impact. Part 2 views it from the perspective of Big Data usage on a national scale.

Since the mid 1990s, the single-party authoritarian People’s Republic of China has been planning a fairly revolutionary social ranking system for individual citizens. This mines the digital footprints we all leave behind every single day. It’s Big Data in action.

What’s the objective of China’s Social Ranking plan?

Chinese politician and philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) wrote many lessons on themes of “culture, moral conduct, doing one’s best, and being trustworthy in what one says.” That has been an overriding formative influence on Chinese character for over 2,000 years

There has long been a perception amongst foreigners that trustworthiness of Chinese production and, by implication, its people is less than exemplary. Counterfeiting and food safety concerns impact the world’s opinion of the country and damage its export markets.

Scams against families and individuals are commonplace too. Mutual mistrust is rife. All of which has led to the desire to measure the trustworthiness of China’s 1.3 billion people.

To do that, the authorities pull in information on almost every conceivable online and offline activity. Not just financial status but anything at all that might indicate a level of trust, both positive and negative. Friendships, political views, lifestyle, criminal record, shopping and consumer patterns, facial recognition linked to location – these are just a few obvious ones.

A Social-Credit System (SCS)

It took from the mid-90s to 2014 for the Chinese authorities to finally publish a plan. The aim is to have it fully unified and working by 2020.

The social-credit system is intended to reward trust-keeping, which is viewed as not having a high enough priority. It intends to achieve that by imposing harsher penalties for what is perceived as poor conduct and rewarding those whose behaviour meets with official approval.

As yet, there is no single central system. Some pilot schemes are run by cities and local authorities and they don’t all work the in same way. Other unofficial scoring is carried out by commercial companies that harvest personal data, such as lending institutions. Information will come from all levels of government and it’s expected that the eventual centralised system will import data from companies too.

What effects of China’s social-credit system have been observed so far?

By all accounts, Chinese people are not too worried about it. The prevalent feeling of suspicion that already existed is because of so much fraudulent activity in Chinese society as a whole. It’s so endemic that any improvement is to be welcomed by the populace, it seems. People appear to feel that having their data examined, or even heightened surveillance, is worth the outcome.

The logic of scoring is straightforward. Parenting activities, such as buying nappies, count as a positive. Purchasing computer games is a negative because it indicates frivolous spending and time spent badly. Not paying taxes or expressing anti-government sentiments is good either.

The benefits of having a high score range from priority processing of your official matters to  better prospects for job and loan applications, and getting your kids into the best schools. While a blacklist does exist, a low score does not automatically mean you are blacklisted.

This March 2018 article by Jeremy Daun (Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre) examines the ban on flying, which would result from being placed on the blacklist.

While the main reasons for receiving a no-fly ban relate to misconduct on a plane, there is a second set of circumstances totally unrelated to aviation, such as debts and disobeying orders from authority.

“The Judgment Defaulter List, and many of the second category no-fly list situations, is concerned with enforcement of existing obligations. It seeks to make life less comfortable for the relevant party until the obligation is fulfilled. In other situations, however, the goal is deterrence, and the consequences of appearing on a black list (again, for a legal violation) are there to discourage or prevent future violations.”

The ban is in addition to whatever penalties have already been applied, so it is a punishment on top of a punishment. “Violations can include some forms of speech, consequences for failure to regulate the speech of others in chat groups, insulting the courts, and so on.”


Is there a list of good and bad behaviours that people can use?

If there is an official list of “good” activities that bump up your “redlist” score, we have not found it. An analysis of reasons given for positive scores did not reveal anything like a definitive, or long, list..

Demonstrating good civil and social attributes, such as volunteering, is vague and perhaps deliberately highly subjective. It’s much easier to detect faults than positives.  Perhaps the absence of negatives alone is as much as people can do, within reason.

It’s also a facet of human nature that we find snippets of minor wrongdoing in others more entertaining than hearing about “goody goodies” – especially if it’s our neighbours!

What happens when things go wrong – can records be corrected?

No, is the short answer – at least according to journalist Liu Hu. He fell foul of the authorities in 2013 because of his investigations and reports into corruption and misconduct by public officials. After discovering he could not buy a plane or certain train tickets, get a loan or buy property he realised that it had happened with no advance warning or any way to change it.

While the Chinese justice system does have an appeal process, that only applies to judgements handed down by a court hearing. The credit-social ranking cannot be appealed against.

An exception seems to be when an individual is added to the blacklist. This is ordered by a court and 10 days is allowed to lodge an appeal. Paying a fine is one way of resolving the issue.

What’s next for China’s social ranking system?

It’s by no means certain that all Chinese citizens are even aware that the system is being implemented. It’s still in pilot phase and there will be many tweaks before it is finally fully operational. It will also take time to roll it out and for citizens to react to its impact.

It’s certainly worth observing periodically to see reaction from the populace, insofar as we will obtain reports from blogs and investigative journalism. The jury will be out for quite some time.