One of my favourite questions to ask in a group of Chinese, especially a group of people I’ve never met before is: 您的社会信用评分是多少 (Ní de shèhuì xìnyòng píngfēn shì duōshǎo?) What’s your social credit score?
The answer every time I’ve asked this question has been words to the effect of: “what are you talking about?” Not one person has ever had an answer, or even knows what this question means.
Somehow, people who don’t live in China are obsessed by the fact that people who do live in China are in need of rescue. I just saw Republican Senator Mike Gallagher stating that he doesn’t have any problem with the people of China but he thinks they are experiencing “increasing totalitarian repression”. He strongly believes Chinese people are submissive to a “Social Credit Score.”
Could this be true? I’ve lived in China almost two decades and seen no evidence of a totalitarian regime, no evidence of oppression whatsoever there is nothing remotely resembling a system that enforces this alleged oppression. Either thousands of Chinese people, and me, are brainwashed to the point of not even knowing they are repressed or a US Senator has misread the situation.
Let’s take a closer look at how repressed Chinese people are and why westerners think thy need a rescue package.
First of all, let’s remove the elephant from the room: there is no Social Credit Score in China. But, China has several different systems which are mistakenly lumped together by western media as a “Social Credit Score.”
A Western-style system of credit ratings?
One of them is exactly as the west have, a credit rating, if you want to borrow money, rent an apartment/house or even get some jobs, you need to prove you’re able to repay or that you don’t have a history of default. In China, if you want to know what your credit rating is, you go to your bank, enter your bank card into an ATM and it will provide you with a printout in seconds, completely free of charge.
Another is an app for parents of primary and middle school kids called 学习强国 (Xue xi qian guo) which literally means “Learning to Strengthen the Country”.
I personally know a little about this because I helped (as a volunteer) to promote the App for my own city, Zhongshan by making a video encouraging people to use it.
App nudges parents to interact with their school-age kids
The App is about what kids do in school and helps educate parents so they can have meaningful discussions with their kids and their kid’s teachers about what’s happening in their school life – this is particularly useful in China as many students live in school Monday to Friday. Of course, like all things related to education it’s positive about China and some foreign readers would, without any sense of irony, call it propaganda because it updates parents and students on the good things the country is doing for them. In the west we call that a party-political broadcast, in China, they call it news, in Western media they call it propaganda but critical readers know it for what it is; an information stream.
Parents get points for the amount of time they put into this and there’s an informal competition among parents to be top of their kid’s class in how much attention they pay to their education. There are no rewards but there are definitely no punishments for not achieving points either; presumably parents would feel bad if they didn’t go online because the class teacher interacts with them there and they get to know what’s going on. So, peer pressure is a part of it but that’s not a bad thing, it encourages parents to interact with the school and their kids, it helps build a cohesive society, it’s certainly not totalitarian.
Another one I know of, again because I’m a volunteer in a local charity is an App where, when people volunteer to help the community. There are many things that can be done, people can help the disabled, help traffic flow outside the school, control pedestrians at busy crossings, generally, just give up some time to help the community.
Apps that encourage app use but do not force it, reward good behavior, but do not penalize bad behavior
Participants can collect points but there’s no compunction on anyone to volunteer at all and no punishment for not being part of this. However, there are rewards offered by the city. When the city has promotions or events, participants may get preferential prices or even free offers to do things, the more you give to society, the more you get back from it. Even to the point where you might be able to choose a better school for your child than they might normally go to because of your geographical location – if the better school is outside your area, and you have collected points by doing good things for the community, you might get benefits. This one is all about benefit and has nothing negative about it at all.
And here’s a great thing: this App can be used to negate points you’ve received for breaking the law which is what we’re coming to now.
In terms of punishments, as I’ve mentioned, there are no punishments in either of the two “social credit score Apps”. They are totally voluntary and beneficial to the users and society.
Control and punishment, but it’s not what you might think
China has a system of vehicle registration and identification, if that sounds totalitarian, take a look at the front and back of almost every car in the world. If a person commits an offense in their car, they get a fine and points on their license, this seems to a universal system to differing degrees in every developed country in the world. However, in China, If you receive points on your license and you volunteer for a few weeks to help the school crossing outside your local school, they will expunge your points – how totalitarian is that!
Something that might seem totalitarian is that phones, like cars in China, are registered to identified users, you can’t buy a SIM card without an ID so, when a car gets a penalty, the registered owner get a text message of how much the fine will be and when to pay it. They can do so immediately or wait until a deadline.
If the registered owner isn’t driving the car, they just send a message to the system with the name of the driver and the penalty is transferred to them (there are people who use this system when they are near the point of losing their license, they make an arrangement with someone who has no points and pay them to take the penalty, usually their wife, family member or a good friend. This is, of course, illegal, but very hard to get caught doing as it’s all done through phone messages, not in person at a “fine office”. Again, hardly evidence of totalitarianism.
If an offender fails to pay the fine, they can be blacklisted and this is it, the dreaded word that western media claims, is a huge problem for Chinese people. But it’s not. Because this only applies when debts are overdue, so if the debt is paid, there’s no issue. If the debt isn’t paid, then people do have a problem.
Since Chinese all use WeChat to access bank accounts this may cause real inconvenience. They need to go to the place where the fine was issued, take the money, pay it and then their account is unlocked. That’s not so draconian at all.
Find the oppressive system you may be thinking of outside of China.
What is draconian is a system whereby people can be sent to prison for non-payment of fines, this isn’t possible in China, China has no one in prison because of unpaid fines.
One last item some people don’t like but, in all honesty, really only affects very few people. If you are on bail awaiting trial, if you have a large court case outstanding related to a debt you owe, if you have been convicted of assault, damage or other nuisance on a train, plane or other public transport, then you may be blocked from traveling on public transport for a period of time. For serious matters this can be extended to hotel accommodation too. Again, this seems fair and hardly a totalitarian system and not much different to systems in Western countries.
Chinese people live on their phones, they book and pay for everything by mobile phone. Wherever they go, if using hotel accommodation, registration with ID cards, or passports is required and this is true for everyone who stays in the room overnight. So, this system means, unless you drive your own car, pay cash for your fuel and stay in private residences, you can’t go to another city in China, nor can you leave China until the matter is resolved – once resolved, all restrictions are lifted.
Some, who don’t understand the system would just say, just get a new phone, but you can’t, the phone needs to be registered with your ID. Your ID is under restrictions, not your phone, getting a new phone would not remove these restrictions.
One way around this might be to get a family member to obtain a new phone but even this would be limited because the phone would need to access that person’s funds in their bank account, not the restricted person’s. So, while access to funds is possible, this system would still not allow access to hotels and it’s really only a very close family member or trusted friend who might do it.
There are other absurd Western claims, such the one that “being sad is against the law in China!”
If we’re honest, systems in China may differ from those in the west but then so do legal, banking and financial transaction systems. This system works well because it doesn’t affect the vast majority of the population in anything other than a positive way, it does however affect a few people who break laws.
The myths about getting points deducted for buying foreign goods, needing a good score to get married are made up to make China look bad, they simply don’t exist and, if someone tells you they do, ask them for evidence, they will produce a media report to support their assertion but no evidence.
People allege all kinds of ridiculous things about China, including a recent video claiming it’s illegal to be sad! When people make silly and outrageous claims, the best response is to ask what act and section of the law this restriction comes from, it probably comes from the headlines of a Western media outlet and will never come from the Chinese Criminal Code, the criminal statutes have no such offenses incorporated in them and, something that might surprise people who have been misled all their lives about China, it is a country with a strong respect for rule of law, laws that protect people not laws to repress people.