An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a MIT Technology Review article, written by Zeyi Yang: It’s easier to talk about what China’s social credit system isn’t than what it is. Ever since 2014, when China announced a six-year plan to build a system to reward actions that build trust in society and penalize the opposite, it has been one of the most misunderstood things about China in Western discourse. Now, with new documents released in mid-November, there’s an opportunity to correct the record. For most people outside China, the words “social credit system” conjure up an instant image: a Black Mirror — esque web of technologies that automatically score all Chinese citizens according to what they did right and wrong. But the reality is, that terrifying system doesn’t exist, and the central government doesn’t seem to have much appetite to build it, either. Instead, the system that the central government has been slowly working on is a mix of attempts to regulate the financial credit industry, enable government agencies to share data with each other, and promote state-sanctioned moral values — however vague that last goal in particular sounds. There’s no evidence yet that this system has been abused for widespread social control (though it remains possible that it could be wielded to restrict individual rights).

While local governments have been much more ambitious with their innovative regulations, causing more controversies and public pushback, the countrywide social credit system will still take a long time to materialize. And China is now closer than ever to defining what that system will look like. On November 14, several top government agencies collectively released a draft law on the Establishment of the Social Credit System, the first attempt to systematically codify past experiments on social credit and, theoretically, guide future implementation. Yet the draft law still left observers with more questions than answers. […]

“This draft doesn’t reflect a major sea change at all,” says Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow of the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center who has been tracking China’s social credit experiment for years. It’s not a meaningful shift in strategy or objective, he says. Rather, the law stays close to local rules that Chinese cities like Shanghai have released and enforced in recent years on things like data collection and punishment methods — just giving them a stamp of central approval. It also doesn’t answer lingering questions that scholars have about the limitations of local rules. “This is largely incorporating what has been out there, to the point where it doesn’t really add a whole lot of value,” Daum adds. So what is China’s current system actually like? Do people really have social credit scores? Is there any truth to the image of artificial-intelligence-powered social control that dominates Western imagination? The “social credit” term covers two different things, writes Yang: “traditional financial creditworthiness and ‘social creditworthiness,’ which draws data from a larger variety of sectors.” The former is a concept Westerners are familiar with as it essentially refers to documenting individuals’ or businesses’ financial history and predicting their ability to pay back future loans. The latter, which is what’s most controversial in the West, is the Chinese government’s attempt to hold entities accountable to fight corruption, telecom scams, tax evasion, academic plagiarism, and much more.

“The government seems to believe that all these problems are loosely tied to a lack of trust, and that building trust requires a one-size-fits-all solution,” writes Yang. “So just as financial credit scoring helps assess a person’s creditworthiness, it thinks, some form of ‘social credit’ can help people assess others’ trustworthiness in other respects.” It gets confusing though because the “social” credit scoring often gets lumped together with financial credit scoring in policy discussions, “even though it’s a much younger field with little precedent in other societies.” Local governments also occasionally mix up the two, further complicating the matter.

Has the government built a system that is actively regulating these two types of credit? How will a social credit system affect Chinese people’s everyday lives? So is there a centralized social credit score computed for every Chinese citizen? These are some of the questions Yang attempts to answer in the full article.

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