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.


justrecently said...

As long as you think that the international media want to inform in a responsible way, it makes sense to remind them that sensationalist coverage harms their, umm, creditworthiness. But if they want to sell in the first place (which is the case in an attention economy), accuracy may not be their main concern. Besides, both Britain and Germany have their share of papers of a kind that are mainly about creating a public mood that most politicians and activists apparently can't ignore or oppose (even if it would make sense to do so, politically speaking).

Also, reporting accurately may come at a personal price. I have never found anything clearly wrong in the way Deutsche Welle's Chinese department did their work, and the questions I sent to the management there were never answered.

Depending on the contract your work is based on, it may take a lot of courage to put accuracy before what appears to be opportune if you want to keep your job.

I think I have two reasons to disagree with the notion that Chinese readers' expectations toward Western media should be accomodated. One is that some of these readers' skepticism looks reasonable to me - the Western press isn't necessarily keen on becoming more accurate - they won't heed the call.

The other is that many of them won't be satisfied by anything Western anyway. Positions on both sides have hardened.

And as for the social credit system: yes, the coverage is overblown, at least until now. But I wouldn't count on an inability of China's political system to put them into practice, or on a Chinese public to undermine such plans in the long run.

Obviously, the media should do better. But they should do better because it's a professional duty to immprove, not because it would make any share of the public more trusting.

Jixiang said...

"And as for the social credit system: yes, the coverage is overblown, at least until now. But I wouldn't count on an inability of China's political system to put them into practice, or on a Chinese public to undermine such plans in the long run."

I wouldn't count on an inability of the Chinese government to do all sorts of distasteful, dystopian things, or on the Chinese public to push back. But realistically they don't have plans to implement a "Black Mirror-style" social credit system of the kind these reports are describing, for now.

"As long as you think that the international media want to inform in a responsible way, it makes sense to remind them that sensationalist coverage harms their, umm, creditworthiness."

I think that if we are talking about "serious" media organizations like the Guardian, the BBC or the Economist, they do tend to feel that they have some sort of duty not to distort the facts or publish obvious untruths simply for the sake of selling more. They have their own positions and agendas, obviously, and totally objective coverage doesn't exist, but still they have to uphold a reputation for quality reporting. I find most of their China coverage, for instance, to stick to the facts and explain the country reasonably well. On the other hand, some of their reporting on the social credit system is based on misconceptions which sensationalise the issue, and this is a pity.

I agree with you that some Chinese will never accept or believe any negative coverage of their country that they read in a Western or in any case foreign source. But there are also many who are open to listening to outside sources of information on their country, and at the very least see them as being one side of the truth. It is important not to lose those ones, especially since the Western media may be their only source of uncensored information on what is going on in China.