We, the Data: An inside look at China’s Social Credit System

One scorecard to rule them all

The “Internet Plus” or “Police State 2.0”?

In the end technology is just a tool.

Depending on who wields it, it can have two sides.

  • Either an enhanced connection of people bringing transparency and sustainable prosperity.
  • Or a full control over citizens who become dependent and surrender their freedom.

No this isn’t “Black Mirror” but it certainly seems that some governments may have taken a page out of Amazon’s script.

In the western world, a lot of talk is currently ongoing about data security. We fear the leak and misuse of our personal information or of infrastructure data.

Other countries are much more proactive in the use of big data to monitor and analyze citizen behavior.

We will have a deeper look into the use of the Internet of Things by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).


The two sides of the medal

The use of citizen data can be used on a wide scale in incentivize certain behaviors. This is commonly known as social credit system.

In the PRC, the declared goal is to uphold and enhance communist core values such as honesty, integrity and decency.

The impact of this system on the individuals now depends highly on the definition of “good” and “bad behavior”. In which of these categories falls the free expression of thougths about corporations and governments?

The conformity to the “communist core values” is captured in a social credit score. It can then be used to incentivice good behavior and punish bad behavior. This is the potential of:

  • A system capable to expose frauds, con men, and corruptness
  • A system capabel to limit freedom of speech, harass journalists, and suppress media

Social credit initiatives

Pilot project in 2010

“That project, launched in Jiangsu province’s Suining County in 2010, gave citizens points for good behavior, up to a maximum of 1,000. But a minor violation of traffic rules would cost someone 20 points, and running a red light, driving while drunk or paying a bribe would cost 50.”
“The Suining government later told state media that it had revised the project, still recording social credit scores but abandoning the A-to-D classifications.”


Plans published in 2014

In 2014 the PRC government published their plan to implement a large scale social credit system. The so-called “national reputation system” is set to go country wide and become mandatory from 2020.

Current status

Currently around 30 programs are in place, backed by the respective local governments. One of these is Shanghai (“honest shanghai app”).

Shanghai (Unsplash)

How to monitor 1.3b people

Different from western world, the public and private initiatives in the PRC are intertwined.

The public and private world are even described to be in a “symbiotic relationship”.

So far, the government issued 8 licenses for private companies to collect and contribute data to governmental analytics. Prominent examples include tech giants like Alibaba (“Sesame Credit”), Tencent (WeChat), Baidu.

Data Sources

The social credit rating is a product of public and private data sources.


  • Criminal records and court data
  • Traffic cameras and pedestrian monitoring (using vehicle and face ID), checking for traffic violations
  • Travel patterns (going abroad, regular visits to parents)


  • Chat and email data
  • Internet shopping information
  • Loan and debt information, liquidity and default risk
  • Smart devices (IoT devices), such as smart home, fitness trackers, phone location and other sensor data

Algorithms pull and analyze the data to generate a single “credit score”. They are black box systems. So, no one in the general public knows which behavior is rewarded or punished.

Why do people go with it?

But why would people be in favor of a system such as the one described and willing to give out huge amounts of personal data?

  • Chinese are highly tech affine. The are generally quite open to share private data in exchange for “free” and convenient services
  • The provision of data is made appealing through “gamification”
  • Social pressure to use the rating as means to gain advantage or security in business and private life
  • Social pressure to adapt and support government backed initiatives (not to become “suspicious”


Potentially positive application:

Higher trust between citizens in business and dating.

Potentially negative application:

Taking away conveniences and rights based on suboptimal rating.

  • Certain career choices and advancements may not be open to people with a low rating
  • Convenience of everyday life can be impacted. This includes search for relationships or an appartment. Also, parents with bad ratings may not be able to get a spot for their children in a good school. Same goes for seats at restaurants, hotel rooms, or waiting time in hospitals.
  • Freedom to travel may be removed
  • A bad scoial rating can also result in worse conditions from the bank


  • The impact of social rating systems is not per se good or bad. It depends on who or which algorithm grades the individual’s behavior.
  • In the wake of the Facebook scandal we have to be weary not to freely give out any private data in exchange for convenience or the illusion of security.
  • Additionally the central data collection poses an attractive target for cyber criminals.

Outlook: Orwell vs. Huxley

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
[…]In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

(Social critic Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death”)

Daniel Sontag connects the bots: As Industry 4.0 lead and manager for connected products, he does what he loves — tying business to tech, and theory to practice.

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