The ‘China Dystopia’ Psyop – Social Credit System in China or in the West?
Where is this social credit system really destined to be implemented?
View from China with an Austrian School of Economics Perspective
Here’s the ‘deep dive’ into the social credit system topic we promised in our earlier background post on Society & Quality of Life in China. Those who have not read these earlier posts may also wish to take a look at the introductory post Why Austrian China if they want to know more about our frame of reference and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for current Chinese government policies. Part II of the China Dystopia Psyop is here.
How does a narrative become a fact? Repetition. Repetition in an endless variety of forms and over an extended period of time. Little video clips citing this ‘fact’ in passing seem to be particularly effective. “Seeing is believing,” as the saying goes. Most people are extremely gullible and tend to believe whatever they are told, especially if it fits in with whatever they have heard countless times before. In fact, the video can even show completely unrelated scenes. Most viewers don’t look too closely. All you need are some moving pictures and a voiceover to deliver the narrative. For example, during the Tibet conflict in 2008 many Western media outlets showed pictures of Nepali soldiers beating civilians, claiming that the soldiers were Chinese. The soldiers did not look Chinese at all, but apparently few people noticed.
Eventually, what was once merely a narrative evolves into a background ‘fact’ – i.e. something which ‘goes without saying’. Once it attains this status, it becomes very difficult to dislodge. This is because most people are simply not able to grasp the concept of the ‘big lie’.
As Hitler put it:
"In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; [...] in the primitive simplicity of their minds [the masses] more readily fall victim to a big lie, since they themselves occasionally tell small lies, but would be ashamed of big ones. To fabricate such blatant lies would never occur to them, so they will also never imagine that someone could have the nerve to twist the truth so completely and shamelessly. Even when the facts become impossible to overlook, they will still doubt and waver and continue to think that there must be some other explanation."
Once a narrative reaches this level of acceptance, people offering opposing narratives find few takers. On the contrary, questioning such ‘facts’ typically results in shunning.
After years of repetition, the alleged Chinese ‘social credit system’ likely falls into this category. Either that or it is SO secret that practically no Chinese living in China have ever heard of it, in which case one would have to wonder what the point is. What’s the use of having a social credit score if no-one knows his score??
The basic idea seems to be that this system tracks citizen obedience and political correctness in order to generate a score. Or something like that. To generate those scores, we are led to believe that the system is designed (or will be designed?) to monitor the behavior of all 1.45 billion citizens 24x7, feeding the results into its super sophisticated algorithms.
Here are two articles on the topic put out by the Western media:
On June 6, 2018 Wired published an article entitled “The odd reality of life under China's all-seeing credit score system.” Since then Wired has changed both the headline and much of the content, so those wanting to view the original need to view it on archive.org. Even the author has changed. The latest version is much more conservative and can be viewed here.
The original article stated:
“It might sound like a futuristic dystopian nightmare but the system is already a reality. Social credit is preventing people from buying airline and train tickets, stopping social gatherings from happening, and blocking people from going on certain dating websites. Meanwhile, those viewed kindly are rewarded with discounted energy bills and similar perks.”
These are all blatant lies. And yet, even this article admitted that the system is “under development.” Strange that a system “under development” is already having such a broad effect, no?
Here’s one more, from Business Insider, first published on April 8, 2018. The original headline read: “China has started ranking citizens with a creepy 'social credit' system — here's what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you.” Since then this headline has also been changed. At the same time, the original content was completely wiped out, to be replaced with three sentences.
A few excerpts from original text read:
“Banning you flying or getting the train. China has already started punishing people by restricting their travel. Nine million people with low scores have been blocked from buying tickets for domestic flights, Channel News Asia reported in March, citing official statistics. They can also clamp down on luxury options — three million people are barred from getting business-class train tickets.”
“Throttling your Internet speeds. This is according to Rachel Botsman, an author who published part of her book on tech security on Wired last year. The exact mechanics aren't clear yet. According to Foreign Policy, credit systems monitor whether people pay bills on time, much like financial credit trackers — but also ascribe a moral dimension. Other mooted punishable offences include spending too long playing video games, wasting money on frivolous purchases and posting on social media. Spreading fake news, specifically about terrorist attacks or airport security, will also be punishable offences.”
“Banning you (or your kids!) from the best schools. […] Citizens with low social credit would also be prohibited from enrolling their children at high-paying private schools, Botsman said. It's not clear whether this particular policy has been put into action yet.”
Given that this system has allegedly already been implemented, there sure are a lot of “wills” and “woulds” in this article.
As we will see, the above two articles did however contain a bit of truth, namely that China has this concept of travel restrictions. This mixing of truth and lies is a typical feature of successful psyops. The rest of the Business Insider article seems to be pure imagination, a conclusion supported by the fact that Business Insider itself deleted the entire content.
Thousands if not tens of thousands of such articles have been written pitching various versions of this narrative. Countless videos1 have been created and widely shared on social media. Debunking articles offering a counter narrative, such as this article which appeared in Foreign Policy in November 2018, do exist, but are extremely sparse. With so much smoke, surely there must be fire, no?
As George W. Bush once put it, “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”2 He was right; repetition works.
And yet, with all the countless articles written on the topic, plus countless videos made, why do none of these articles or videos SHOW this alleged social credit app?3 Surely there must be such an app, no? A majority of Chinese rely completely on their mobile phones and have no computer. If this ‘social credit system’ is to serve any function at all, surely there must be some simple way to obtain one’s latest score. It seems unlikely that the government pins them to some bulletin board somewhere. If so, what does this app look like? What functions does it have? What is it called, and which app stores offer it for download?
This seems like a major loophole in the narrative.
Let’s look at a few more.
False narratives do best when mixing in bits of truth here and there. If the propaganda campaign goes well, people will start connecting those bits of truth with the overall narrative in their minds, thus making it doubly difficult to dislodge or challenge. In the case of the ‘social credit system’ China’s travel restriction system was selected to play this role. It was a good choice, since there is no comparable system in the West. The US of course has a secret ‘no fly’ list, but it is nothing like China’s travel restriction system, which is not secretive at all.
How does China’s travel restriction system work?
As discussed in our previous post on society and quality of life, travel restrictions can be imposed on people who fail to pay court judgments against them personally, or against companies for which they have legal responsibility. Normally this only happens if the court believes that the person in reality has the means to pay but simply refuses to do so. This is by no means rare, since people on the losing side of court cases often feign poverty in order to avoid payment. To get yourself off the list, all you have to do is pay up.
Someone subject to travel restrictions can still travel, but is prohibited from using high-speed trains as well as taxis and planes.
Chinese wishing to check whether they are on the list can check their status by inputting their ID number on the creditchina.gov.cn portal website, best accessible via this link. This site provides access to the government-controlled credit rating systems which exist. (There are also privately controlled systems, such as Alibaba’s Sesame Credit.) There you can, for example, search for companies blacklisted for failing to pay their workers, or for companies blacklisted for illegal fund raising. Via other third party applications it is also possible to check to see if the CEO of a particular company is travel restricted. This can be very helpful when deciding whether or not to do business with a company. If their CEO is travel restricted, then you can deduce that the company’s commitment to satisfied customers might be weak.
Countless videos in the West show some random Chinese person allegedly subject to travel restrictions, and claim that this was due to a bad social credit score. No evidence is ever shown to back this up.
Those readers who want to know more can take a look at the China Court Judgment Enforcement’s information portal, albeit in Chinese. This article provides a summary of the legal framework and the types of restrictions imposed. The travel restrictions are a subset of what is more generally called “restrictions on consumption.”4
There are a few other smidgeons of truth in the narrative.
For one thing, there was indeed a proposal paper written up by some Chinese bureaucrat in 2014, in which some ideas were presented using this title. However, that’s about it. There do not seem to be very many similarities between the content of this paper and the narrative on offer in the West. Moreover, details aside, there is no evidence that any such plan was ever approved for a general rollout.
The other smidgeon of truth is that there were actually a few “test sites” selected, where some of the ideas in the paper were put to a test. It’s unclear what happened with these tests, but those wanting to know more about them can check out an amazingly honest paper put out by the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on the topic. The paper is in English. It can be found via this link. Click on “PDF Öffnen” at the bottom to download the PDF.
Does all this PROVE that the ‘social credit system’ as communicated by Western media does not exist in China? Certainly not. Trying to prove that definitively is like trying to prove that there are no green goats in China. The term 社会信用体系 can on a word for word basis be translated as a ‘social credit system’. It can also be translated as a ‘societal credit system’. However, it is not a commonly used word, and even where it can be encountered in government documents, it is not connected to any very detailed goals other than increasing the level of transparency in society with regard to creditworthiness.
What CAN be done is to point out problems in the narrative as it is being sold in the West. Is there some secret agency running this system? Is there a secret app which tracks this score? Maybe, anything is possible. But this is not the narrative which is being advertised.
With all that said, the obvious question is: Why all these lies? What is the goal? Is it just to demonize China and prepare the Western populations for war? Or is there something more sinister going on here?
We’re now on speculative turf, so all we can do is guess and look for evidence to support those guesses. Is perhaps the goal to use this as a cover to justify increasingly autocratic and intrusive rule at home? Could the intended effect be comparable to the demoralization achieved through the widespread dissemination of the Snowden ‘revelations’ in 2013 by Western media? Basically the message delivered at the time was: “Privacy is already a thing of the past; they already know everything so there is no use continuing a hopeless struggle.” And sure enough, for the most part, discussion of the right to privacy and related constitutional issues soon dwindled away. 24x7 surveillance of every word spoken over telephone lines, every word written in an email, and one’s every movement – via Google, Apple and government agencies such as the US NSA – is now just accepted as part of the landscape.
And yet, China is allegedly “much worse.”
Luckily, this is more than a mere guess. We have some prima facie evidence to support it. One of the most comprehensive is a report from the German Education Ministry published in September 2020 with the rather long-winded title “The future of values of people in this country.”5 Part 5.5 of this “study” is called “The Bonus System” and glowingly discusses a “digital point system” as a possible future scenario.
As the Welt newspaper put it in a July 2021 article summarizing this part of the study:
“Germany in the 2030s: Societal consensus has for the most part completely broken down; everyone is just looking out for himself. In order to steer the population, a social credit system like the one in China was conceived. People who behave properly – for example by living in a particularly environmentally aware fashion, or by having an organ donation card, or by spending time with the elderly – get points. People with more points get preferential treatment by the state, for example in terms of choice of school choice.”6 (English translation of original German)
The report itself asks on Page 123:
1) In light of China’s successful use of the social credit system, other countries also start discussing its introduction?
2) Germany as well starts to consider how a digital bonus point system could be compatible with its liberal democratic order, and in the end introduces such a system.
3) This point system eventually acquires a steering function in an increasingly diverse society?
4) People in Germany begin to make critical life decisions on the basis of an algorithm instead of using their own judgment or the advice of friends?
These questions are in themselves a self-indictment. Of course they do not PROVE a connection between these ideas and the false China social credit system narrative, but is it not strange that Western media use this to smear China while at the same time government long-term planning teams are describing it as an attractive future development path? It’s a fair guess that one day this incongruence will suddenly disappear to be replaced by the trusty old adage: “At least it’s not as bad as China, right?”
Those who object that these are just the fantasies of some government bureaucrats should note that not only did these fantasies get media coverage, but even before they appeared, articles in the German press can be found claiming some support for these ideas. An article in the leading German newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung on September 11, 2019 is a good example of that.
Now some readers might say: “Well, maybe in Germany, but nothing like that could ever happen in our country.” Maybe so. Yet if you are living in a “Western” country, the events of 2020 and 2021 provide substantial evidence to the contrary. Over and over, radical new and legally questionable policies restricting civil rights were rolled out throughout the West, often in literal lockstep. That lockstep movement even extended to political slogans such as “build back better” which were rolled out simultaneously in multiple countries.
Preparing a population to accept a loss of previously sacrosanct rights typically requires either a significant amount of time or a sudden cataclysmic event. It would seem that the West now has both.
At least two good examples of such videos can be found on the “Laowhy86” Youtube channel. Together with partner channels SerpentZA and ADVChina, this channel produces exclusively anti-China content, apparently as a full-time job. Viewers are sold the standard full “China Dystopia” picture, complete with crumbling buildings, poisoned water, cowering citizens and an all-powerful state. In his own words, North Korea with money. The constant threats emanating from the US and its media are brushed off as fantasies of the Chinese government. In these two videos the narrator describes how an Orwellian social credit system has been rolled out in Rongcheng, Shandong. They show some old pictures of the town and provide a long list of details about the system allegedly implemented there. These include a mention of “AAA” and “AA” ratings in a country which does not use letters for anything but phonetics.
As discussed later on, Rongcheng was indeed used as a test site for some new credit assessment systems. In one of these videos, to his credit, the narrator admits that he could not find anyone among his acquaintances in China who was aware of such a social credit system being in use. However, he then talks again about Rongcheng (pop. 738,000) and claims that as a result of the social credit system, the sale of 27 million plane tickets and 6 million railway tickets had already been denied.
George Bush, “President Participates in Social Security Conversation in New York,” May 24, 2005.
Though rare, occasional videos do briefly show Alipay’s Sesame Credit score, while claiming or implying that this is the “social credit score.” Alipay is a subsidiary of Alibaba.
Besides the restrictions on travel, restricted individuals are also forbidden from going to restaurants, night clubs and bars in star-rated hotels, from buying property, carrying out renovation works, leasing high-grade office buildings, purchasing non-essential vehicles, traveling for vacation purposes, sending their children to private schools and from buying financial products from the insurance industry.
Anna Hornik et al., Die Zukunft der Wertvorstellungen der Menschen in unserem Land, Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, August 2020.
Original text: Deutschland in den 30er-Jahren des 21. Jahrhunderts: Der gesellschaftliche Konsens ist weitgehend zerbrochen, jeder vor allem auf seinen Vorteil bedacht. Um die Bevölkerung dennoch steuern zu können, hat sich die Politik ein Sozialkredit-System wie in China ausgedacht: Wer sich „richtig“ verhält – etwa weil er besonders klimabewusst lebt, einen Organspendeausweis hat oder sich um Alte und Kranke kümmert –, bekommt Punkte. Und wer viele Punkte hat, erhält staatliche Vergünstigungen: bei der Studienplatzvergabe zum Beispiel [...].