In January 2015, the People’s Bank of China gave approval to nine corporate entities to develop pilot credit systems within six months. The notice claimed that the move would aim to “standardize the social credit market and positively impact the real economy.” 

In the months that followed, Tencent, a China based global tech giant and Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba with 588 million users of its online payments platform, rolled out respective points systems. Ant’s Sesame Credit issued a press release stating: “credit is precious, and the accumulation of it is key.”

In China, social credit is a term which generally describes both private sector incarnations and government-implemented blacklists that resemble rewards systems. In the case of private companies like WeChat and Ant Financial (founded as Alipay), apps can aggregate and analyze scores from the financial data of users. 

Most coverage in the West has focused on painting the system as abusive and Orwellian, a dark harbinger of big data’s worst excesses. Within China, where social credit is quite popular, the story couldn’t be more different. Rather than wondering if the system should exist, journalists tend to wonder how you can beat it.

After these new social credit schemes launched, online tutorials emerged, promising surefire ways for users to boost their scores with minimal effort. Lifestyle writers have speculated about what your score says about your personality. These articles tend to talk about social credit in terms of personal qualities and individual responsibility, with titles such as ‘What are the characteristics of someone who gets a score over 750?’ and ‘Tencent rolls out the big guns with WeChat social, but users prefer Alipay.’ 

These analyses apply the friendly rhetoric of consumer tech to systems that let Chinese companies hoard unprecedented amounts of data that was previously inaccessible. And as the government prepares a national rollout of this system, these puff pieces help normalize its presence. For Chinese users, the question becomes not whether the scores are creepy or invasive, but how to use them to come out on top.

Gaming the system

With friendly-sounding, colloquial language, guides and articles promise that in a few easy steps, anyone can maximize their Sesame Credit rating, a score that runs up to 950. On Zhihu, a question-and-answer website, one tutorial is titled “Open up Wechat pay and know right away whose credit scores are higher.”  

Other articles speculate which personality types might be more likely to get different ranked scores.  The lowest possible score tier, which ranges from 350-550, classifies those in this range as “veteran losers” who are “bankrupt, or on the road to bankruptcy.” 

Regardless of the policy incarnations that social credit might take, extant programs have already signaled to users that these new tools offer something of a cultural and social quid-pro-quo: comply or game the system, and win.

Loyal users are awarded benefits. When Quartz journalist Zheping Huang reported on his usage of Sesame Credit over two years of allowing it to collect data, he earned a five-day VIP membership to a dating app. Tencent’s credit system boasts rewards including portable battery rentals and bonuses for various games published or distributed by its in-house studio. 

So far, social credit isn’t a single nationalized product that encompasses all of China’s 26 provinces at the moment. Right now, it’s merely a convenient service that, in Tencent’s case, is literally a few taps away from WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China. Within China, the predominant domestic image of social credit is as a kind of coupon book for an eager consumer base—a tool for consumers, not a weapon of authoritarians.

For now, these credit scores are in private hands, and much of the online writing seems innocent. But as social credit plays an ever-bigger role in Chinese lives both on and offline, the foundation for greater surveillance is also developing. 

China’s planned nationwide social credit system is expected to launch next year and will be backed by some 200 million CCTV cameras, supported by artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms. 

Until that happens, commercial versions help train consumers to not just accept, but love, social credit.

The social side of social credit

Social credit is still a fragmented system. And in some of its iterations, it’s a kind of social platform.

As many Chinese are aware, if you don’t pay your debts, you might end up on a billboard, or as an advertisement on TikTok. “Lao lai”, or debt dodgers, have become notorious for being displayed in electronic and social-media billboards across advertisements and even before film screenings. One government website post reads “in browsing TikTok, debt dodgers find that they’ve gone viral.” 

Many media reports frame these incidents as precautionary tales, featuring comments admonishing policy violators. Some even cite phone calls from real-life friends and loved ones in response to name-and-shame ads as an example of discipline. These anecdotes of “lao lai justice” have been tagged as “model case” stories for respective governments in Guizhou and Liaoning. 

“Debt dodging” lists, sponsored by local and provincial governments and shared over TikTok, are actually separate from major social credit systems like Sesame Credit and Tencent Pay. But they show how much social-credit discourse is already influencing popular culture. Government policy increasingly encourages data sharing among platforms and services, including on credit.

One reason China’s largest companies have emerged at the forefront of corporate social credit, is because their other products have earned the trust (and data) of consumers. In particular, Tencent’s advantage has relied on being a clearing house for third-party applications that allow for social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo to effectively build data profiles of individual users out of their spending and social media habits. 

WeChat’s payment platform, WeChat Pay, can collect information on individual users’ bicycle rentals, medical appointments, travel, and cab rides — all in the same app. Upon activation of the points system, the WeChat Pay app requests permission to access identification equipment, transaction history, and data related to honoring financial agreements.    

Dark consequences of blacklisting

Of course, turning a user’s credit history into fodder for public, even viral social media content raises serious ethical and political concerns. Within a governmental system that is tightening expression in civil society spaces and cracking down harder on political and social dissidents, punishing people for “bad behavior” becomes increasingly fraught, even if it is done by private companies. In China’s growing “blacklists with teeth”, security interests merge with China’s burgeoning technology sector, and people who are guilty of infractions, whether commercial or political, find it harder to control narratives about themselves

For now, these scorecards are offering enough positive incentives to stoke more commonplace use of social credit. Neither the social credit systems developed by WeChat or Alipay are directly affiliated with government entities. However, their rollout processes are an indication about how technology companies and government entities can change public thinking on privacy and punishment.

Currently existing systems aren’t built for speech or political expression, but the usage of technology to quickly disseminate unflattering information helps create a digital shame culture: If users already using scores to rank themselves and peers as financially stable are any indication, the cultural clout of private credit scoring may help create a more conformist online culture. Elsewhere, we have already seen the dark side of digital behavior scoring, like in the collection of profiling information on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 

Buy your way out of shame

The social credit system is currently private and decentralized, but as increased data sharing suggests, the government is moving towards centralization. Government entities such as the State Council are issuing clarifying language that indicates that social credit might be centralized further. TikTok’s cooperation with government is a good example. The micro-video streaming and recording platform uses public service announcement-style advertisements to name and shame “slackers” for not paying court fines and other minor disciplinary measures. These ads suggest that internet notoriety is on its way to becoming a government enforcement mechanism. 

Other public-private partnerships are merging public and private data further, with Alibaba’s smart city projects relying on camera data from municipal equipment. 

Social credit is not just a digitization of government and corporate enforcement. It also represents a major shift in what it means to be a citizen.

In the scholarly collection “Captivating Technology”, Tamara K. Nopper coins the term “digital character”, which refers to “a digital profile assessed to make inferences regarding character in terms of credibility, reliability, industriousness, responsibility, morality and relationship choices.”  Nopper uses this term to describe credit scoring systems in the United States, which evolved out of analytics company FICO’s scoring system, which uses information such as “purchasing habits, employment records and even mobile-texting patterns to determine creditworthiness.”  

China’s version of credit scoring builds off its American predecessor, but makes it more invasive, and more socially far-reaching. On the one hand, Chinese authorities and corporations use behavior assessment to set preconditions for appropriate conduct either on devices or in general.

On the other hand, those individuals that can pay off debts easily will be able to effectively purchase their way out of shame, while people who cannot have their information broadcasted and judged publicly. In the case of Sesame or Tencent credit, the cost of ridding oneself of shame requires feeding more positive financial data to the companies. As more and more of everyday life in China becomes digitized, this video-game logic will come to define the lives of hundreds of millions of citizens, with wealthier people at a distinct advantage.

Some good, but great danger

There are some kernels of truth to the social issues that Chinese scoring technologies aim to solve. In the process of publicizing social credit, Chinese media has highlighted issues such as fraudulent e-commerce practices and click farms, arguing that blacklists will cut down on fraudulent practices meaningfully.

But while stores with false advertising may face discipline, the implementation of social credit style policies remains open-ended in terms of the scale and scope of data requested. Ultimately, the darkest aspect of social credit, more than any privacy concerns, is the extent to which it lets central authorities view every aspect of life.