Saturday, November 17, 2018

Social Credit in China and the dangers of over-the-top reporting

Over the past year, one of the biggest China stories to strike the world's attention has been the "social credit" score which the Chinese government is supposedly getting ready to assign every citizen. I can no longer count the number of times that I have heard the words "Orwellian" and "Black Mirror" used in conjunction with this topic. Most gravely, this issue made its way into US vice-president Mike Pence's momentous and confrontational speech about China on the 4th of October, widely described as the portent of a new cold war. After making a very reasonable remark about China's Great Firewall restricting the free flow of information, Pence added that "by 2020, China's rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life - the so-called "social credit score".

There is only one problem: the narrative that claims the Chinese state is going to assign every single citizen a score that will determine their social standing and many or all aspects of their life is essentially one big myth. This misconception seems to have originated due to reporters, probably in good faith, conflating a pretty mundane government plan to extend a system of social credit scoring to all companies and organizations by 2020 with credit score systems set up by private companies like Alibaba, and perhaps some local government schemes. None of these initiatives come close to being some sort of all-encompassing system that catches every citizen in its net and determines their place in society.

Yesterday's article by Jamie Horsley, published in Foreign Policy, does an excellent job of putting the record straight. Entitled "China's Orwellian Social Credit Score isn't Real", the piece provides a realistic view of China's current "social credit" policies, and of what misunderstandings might have fuelled the over-the-top reporting on this topic. Jeremy Daum, who runs the excellent China Law Translate website, has also done a good job of taking on the inaccurate reports.

A still from the nightmarish Black Mirror episode where every person is given a social media score that updates in real time. 

I don't find it hard to see how this myth of a dystopian social credit system could have arisen. Chinese laws and government plans are confusing for anyone, and implementation differs very much from what's written on paper. Also, modern life in China certainly does have a dystopian feel to it: almost all of people's transactions and a good chunk of their social interactions pass through one single phone app, WeChat, or at most through two or three different apps, and an authoritarian government has full access to all the records when it wants to. The use of facial-recognition technology and electronic monitoring of all kinds is expanding, and the censorship of "unharmonious" content on the internet is truly unparalleled worldwide. 

Still, it is crucial that big media organizations in Western countries be especially cautious about maintaining accuracy in their reporting on China, and not give in to sensationalism and concocted stories. Apart from the simple moral duty to report in an honest fashion, this is important for another reason: protecting their reputation in the eyes of the Chinese public. 

This might seem like a strange consideration, given that much of the foreign media is inaccessible within China. But there is a class of Chinese who are able to read English, travel abroad, use VPNs and will come across reporting on China in the international media no matter how much their government tries to prevent it. For many of them however, the credibility of such reports is open to question. In their own country, they are told that the "Western media" does nothing but maliciously slander China for its own shadowy purposes. While they may not completely believe this, many Chinese will approach any foreign articles on their country, especially negative ones, with a degree of skepticism. At best, they may believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Churning out articles about social credit that are clearly over-the-top and inaccurate, in ways that anyone who lives in China can see, is a great way to make sure that the Western media loses points in the battle for hearts and minds. Most seriously, it may be causing Chinese with access to the international media to disbelieve the entirely true reports on the awful events going on in Xinjiang, which go completely unreported in their own country. Now is truly the time to produce accurate reporting on China, rather than giving in to sensationalist fantasies.