China’s growing technological prowess is capturing the attention of the world as its companies and government rapidly build and deploy new technologies, with an eye on global AI leadership. While Chinese bureaucracy has traditionally been a technology laggard, it too is waking up to the promise of previously untapped data within government. The Social Credit System (SCS) is the government’s attempt to modernise its governance capacity through data and technology. In western media it is often caught up in a web of misconceptions centred around a perceived ‘Orwellian’ system that involves using big data to score citizens’ morality. In reality, the initiative is a cluster of experiments harnessing public data to improve governance by boosting trust between government, firms and individuals. This includes larger national efforts, such as Blacklist-Redlist Joint Sanctions and Rewards regimes, as well as smaller efforts taking place in a handful of cities, where efforts at scoring citizens are being experimented with – albeit in fairly mundane fashion compared to reporting in mainstream western media.

The SCS is best understood as an overarching policy initiative consisting of multiple sub-systems, some with different policy goals and rules, rather than one distinct system. Ambitiously, it takes aim at nearly all of China’s development ills – from environmental protection to IP and financial fraud to academic plagiarism – which the government believes stems from firms and individuals not following laws and regulations. This is seen to be largely due to the judicial system’s failure to enforce laws, but is also put down to a general weakness in the country’s institutions, which the government believes is holding China back in its path to becoming a developed country with a ‘decisive market economy’. The SCS is an attempt to ‘encourage individuals, business, legal institutions, and government itself to be more “trustworthy” (守信, shouxin)’.

While, as this essay shows, Chinese government efforts to aggregate public data and attempt regulatory experiments to boost trust and improve law enforcement are much more limited in scope, and possibly effectiveness, than they are frequently portrayed outside China, the system does raise questions of fairness, transparency and privacy. However, it is a mistake to conflate all surveillance in China into the SCS. It may be that the issue is less the SCS itself than the laws that it is seeking to enforce more effectively.


Dev Lewis

Fellow and program lead at Digital Asia Hub and Yenching scholar at Peking University