On June 16, Assistant Professor Peng Chun, Assistant Dean at the Peking University Law School, delivered a lecture at Yenching Academy titled “Understanding China’s Social Credit System” as part of the Topics in China Studies Lecture Series for the 2022 Spring semester. Associate Dean Brent Haas hosted the session, with 6th cohort Yenching Scholars participating in the online class from across the globe. The class aimed to discuss the roots, motivation, and challenges of China’s social credit system (SCS) mainly through a legal perspective, exploring the Orwellian myth surrounding the Chinese system and why the topic has drawn considerable attention from the outside world.
The era of big data and artificial intelligence is rife with widespread worries and fears about the dystopian outlook vividly portrayed in the English novel, 1984. At the core is the deep concern for the increasingly realistic prospects that dataism will soon rule the world and that human beings are about to be mastered by what we try to master. The idea of adopting an SCS using big data technologies has caused debates worldwide, with many criticizing China for its system and the West’s consideration of such an approach as a grave threat it should guard against
In this vein, Asst. Prof. Peng began by discussing the two contrasting images of China’s SCS: the “white mirror image” and the “black mirror image.” He explained that the “white mirror image,” an idea widespread in Chinese state media, suggests that the SCS is an innovative regulatory instrument to improve social and economic governance in China. In contrast, he described the “black mirror image” as an idea prevalent in the Western media that sees SCS as an all-encompassing, invasive, and calculating machine spying on every Chinese citizen, generating a rating score vis-à-vis their daily activities, and ultimately rewards and/or sanctions the citizens. This latter perspective forms the core of the Orwellian myth, with three main arguments that (mis)conceive China’s SCS as a surveillance machinery, a rating mechanism, and a moralizing apparatus.
Nonetheless, Asst. Prof. Peng argued against these conceptions of the Chinese SCS, noting that although it has data-generating capabilities, the system does not gather data capriciously as it is guided by the National Planning Outline published in 2014 to promote transparency. Also, the guest lecturer explained that the government does not record individuals in the SCS unless they commit any illegal actions detailed in categories prescribed by the national and local SCS rules and regulations, e.g., the Shanghai Regulation on the SCS Administration published in 2020. He clarified that although Chinese citizens receive some ratings in the context of financial credit scores, as evident in corporations like Ant Financials, this does not translate to social credit scores. Likewise, Asst. Prof. Peng noted that although the SCS does have a naming and shaming function (referred to as the joint sanction mechanism), the mechanism was created mainly for severe violations of the law.
The Law School Assistant Dean explained the Chinese SCS through four components: its scope covering economic and social spheres; its rule-based operation; its rewards and sanctions mechanism; and its goal of fostering trust across society. “In essence, the SCS is a state-driven program or re-incentivization via rewarding trust-enhancing behaviors and punishing trust-breaking behaviors,” he mentioned. He further discussed the legality of the SCS, focusing on the practical implications and challenges of the several central level memoranda of understanding (MOUs) guiding the implementation of the joint sanction mechanism.
Asst. Prof. Peng concluded that China’s SCS is neither completely a “white mirror” nor a “black mirror” but sits somewhere in between the polarized versions, with more efforts needed to prevent the system from sliding towards the “black mirror” outlook. Also, while the MOUs are not laws, they provide a valuable interface for the underlying legal system and are largely lawful in the formal sense as a legal compliance-enhancing mechanism. He also noted that future research into the theme of SCS in China should consider the nature of the role of the state and civil society in building social trust and whether the state-driven social engineering program is the desirable way to improve social trust in China’s rapidly changing society.
Several questions were raised during the Q&A session. One question concerned the time length the Chinese government drafting process of the law on SCS would take and whether the process has reached the point of public review and comments. Asst. Prof. Peng explained that central government had received several drafts of the SCS law from Chinese scholars, which reflects why the draft law is in the third category (category for laws still under research) of the National People’s Congress legislative plan. However, the biggest challenges for the government are the nature of the scope (including government, judiciary, social, and economic actors) and implementation of the law across agencies and sectors without violating the principle of professionalism.
Students also inquired into the availability of other mechanisms to enhance social trust and the effectiveness of the SCS, considering factors like increasing technology and ideas like Luhmann’s theory of modern society. The Assistant Dean mentioned that multiple means exist to build social trust, including a more robust civil society participation and a market-based approach – areas China is yet to adopt as potential platforms to expand social capital. He noted that China adopts a state-led approach due to the (highly debatable) perceived need to promote efficiency in resolving social trust issues. Nonetheless, he noted that the SCS could be critiqued from the functional differentiation perspective of Luhmann’s theory of modern social systems that stresses the separation of different aspects of society. Meanwhile, this perspective sees China’s SCS as fusing the otherwise separate legal and political systems, he challenged the scholars to consider whether China is a modern society in the Luhmannian sense. He added that the recent interest in Luhmann’s theory has been to attack the absence of separation between law and politics in China.