Adoption and public opinion

In June 2019, Bloomberg published an article calling out Suzhou’s point pilot for low adoption rates and poor implementation. The opening paragraph reads, “What if you built a terrifying 21st century surveillance-and-control system and no one cared?” The credit bureau offices are empty, says the article, and man-on-the-street interviews reveal a public ignorant of, and apathetic about, social credit.

A piece (paywall) by the Economist had a similar takeaway: that the system is being shrugged off by the majority of citizens in pilot areas.

A 2018 study on the topic gives us some actual numbers in terms of awareness and penetration: for those citizens who live in areas with a local SCS, only 11% are aware of being part of a government pilot.1

Trivium researchers visited several cities where point pilots are being implemented, and found similar anecdotal evidence of this lack of awareness: even in cities where local points systems are technically running, they’re very much still in beta, and most people remain unaware of, and unaffected by, their existence.

But still, it’s misleading to say that the system has no teeth. A more accurate take, in our view, is that it’s still early days. There hasn’t been a concerted propaganda push to raise public awareness, and it’s much too soon to say what full-scale adoption will look like.

Even if the point systems themselves remain ignored, the underlying social credit data they’re based on will play a major role in people’s lives.

As Marianne Von Blomberg puts it in her paper “Social Credit and China’s Rule of Law”:

As one’s credit status is, according to the plan, to become a central criterion for decisions on recruitment, grants of financial support for a project, and others, such rules will inevitably gain substantial importance.

Public opinion

The very notion of a social credit system is enough to give many western observers the heebie-jeebies. But, from within China, the concept of social credit is viewed in a generally positive light.

In 2018, Free University of Berlin researcher Genia Kostka published a study called China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval, which investigated Chinese citizen’s response to both the national SCS and private social credit systems. During the study, 2,209 surveys were collected from Chinese citizens, and these results were bolstered by in-person interviews conducted in Shanghai and Beijing.

As you might expect, the paper found that attitudes towards social credit varied with socio-demographic factors, online habits, and political stance, but on the whole, results were overwhelmingly in favor:

Overall, respondents report a high degree of approval of SCSs, with 80% of respondents either somewhat approving or strongly approving SCSs. Only 19% of respondents perceive the SCS in value neutral terms (neither disapprove nor approve) while just 1% reported either strong or somewhat disapproval.

Kostka goes on to address the possibility that results may be skewed due to a fear of consequences for expressing dissent:

To some extent the high degree of approval of SCSs and the almost nonexistent disapproval we found might reflect the nature of conducting a survey in an authoritarian setting – while respondents were clearly informed that that the data was anonymized and to be used for research purposes only, some more cautious respondents may have falsified their preferences to a degree due to concerns about expressions of disapproval resulting in reprisals from the state. Yet, we are confident that such an effect would be marginal not least since half of respondents (49%) indicated strong approval of SCSs, suggesting that overall public support is quite robust. Lending support for this view is the fact that only 1% of respondents expressed the view that a nationwide SCS should not be implemented. Our semi-structured interviews with citizens of various ages further confirmed these high approval levels. That said, the significant number of value-neutral respondents (neither approve nor disapprove) might suggest the existence of a group of ‘doubters’ — 1 in 5 Chinese—who maintain a circumspect attitude about SCSs.

Like Kostka, we don’t really buy the notion that Chinese citizens feign approval of the SCS out of fear, especially since, in the recent past, the general public has shown no compunction about vocally expressing disapproval for similar projects. In 2010, Suining county, Jiangsu launched a social-credit-esque program for local citizens, complete with a heavy-handed rewards and punishments system. As Foreign Policy reports:

The scheme was a disaster. Both residents and state media blasted it for its seemingly unfair and arbitrary criteria, with one state-run newspaper comparing the system to the “good citizen” certificates issued by Japan during its wartime occupation of China. The Suining pilot was canceled but not before teaching the government some lessons about what is palatable to the public.

So, we don’t think that Chinese citizens are afraid to express their opinions. But we do think that the extremely high levels of approval may, in part, be due to the fact that the SCS doesn’t really do much yet. For most people, even those who are participating in a local SCS pilot, the system has yet to really begin impacting their lives in a meaningful way.

We should be able to get a clearer read on public opinion in a couple of years, once the system has had some time to ramp up to full speed.

  1. 2018, Genia Kostka: China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval