SHANGHAI–China’s central government is gearing up for an unprecedented attempt to monitor and measure citizens’ behavior across all spectrums of life as part of the ‘Social Credit System’, a policy due to be rolled out from 2020 that enlists the help of companies such as Alibaba Group.
Though many of the details of the policy are still unclear, including how all of this data would be collected and exactly what information it will include, observers here are largely downplaying its potential impact on a category of consumers who are already accustomed to being highly monitored.
“The Chinese consumer won’t be that against it. Look at cameras, Chinese people actually like having cameras everywhere because it makes it less likely for someone to cheat you. I think Chinese people in general are concerned about boorish behavior and see this as a way of improving society,” said Shaun Rein, founder of China Market Research Group.
Efforts are already underway to utilize big data to track the online lives and spending habits of Chinese people, with eight private companies running government-approved pilot programs to trial the collection of data for a resulting ‘Social Credit’ score.
One of these programs is Sesame Credit, an app developed by Ant Financial, the financial arm of Alibaba Group, which tracks people’s online spending (including what they buy), whether they pay their bills on time, the status of those in their social networks, as well as savings and investment records.
Rewards for a high Sesame Credit score include being able to use bike sharing services or hiring a car without having to pay a deposit, as well as easier access to visas from co-operating foreign governments, such as Singapore.
In terms of consumer behavior, Helen Wang, author of “The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You”, is doubtful that the proposed ‘Social Credit’ policy will have a big impact, in large part because Chinese people already have an expectation that everything they buy, whether online through major e-commerce platforms, or in department stores, is already being monitored, as are their social media posts, emails and other forms of online behavior.
“To people in the West, personal security and privacy is an immediate concern, but on the other hand, the issue of privacy is less of an issue in China. In Chinese culture traditionally there isn’t much concept of privacy, everyone is in everyone else’s business,” she said.
“It won’t put people off buying things online, even if they know all the information from their purchases is being logged and put into a central database, I think it might even encourage them more to use platforms they know are being monitored so they can get more points, can benefit from their purchases,” said Wang.
Shanghai-based teacher Zengdong Yang is known to her friends as “Taobao Queen” and has long been classified a VIP spender on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms; she said her consumption wouldn’t be affected by closer monitoring.
“I’m not worried about it, because many companies already have our personal information. I do not feel that this plan will change the protection of personal information when I already have to use my [national ID number] to register for websites, social networks and payment platforms,” she said.
Though Yang does think there might be a small impact on rates of consumption overall, as younger consumers who, in recent years have become more likely to live beyond their means, might reign in spending to protect their ‘Social Credit’ score.
“I think there will be some impact on consumers, for example, some people will go on a travel blacklist, so won’t be able to shop overseas, or because of an integrity problem it will be difficult to get bank loans, so some people may be careful not to damage their own integrity and many people will care more about their credit,” she added.
The opposite impact could also potentially be a by-product of the ‘Social Credit’ system, according to Renee Hartmann, co-founder of China Luxury Advisors, with comparatively few people currently having an adequate financial history to qualify for credit from lending institutions.
“The establishment of the social credit might help more consumers to expand their spending power,” she said.
“Many Chinese, especially young Chinese do not have the financial history to qualify for a credit card, mortgage or loan. With such a system in place, the banks might feel more comfortable to lend money, which could indirectly spur spending across the board.”
In China’s current political atmosphere, in the midst of President Xi Jinping’s campaign against conspicuous consumption, a higher level of monitoring might encourage some consumers to do their luxury shopping abroad rather than at home in China. But, according to Helen Wang, this impact will only affect a small percentage of luxury consumers- those who feel they have something to hide, such as corrupt officials.
“Unless you are doing something fishy, it won’t deter people from spending. It will make people more conscious about what they are buying and their behavior as consumers, but in generally I don’t see it impacting luxury purchases unless you are a corrupt official, for example,” she said.
The policy would see citizens gain points for behavior such as repaying loans on time, much like a credit score in the U.S., but goes further, taking into account education levels, professional assessments, and would also punish poor social behavior, such as queue jumping, offering poor service or arguing in public.
All of these behaviors would be distilled into a single score that would determine how easy it is for people to travel, what schools their children can attend and eligibility for certain rewards.
A lengthy planning document from China’s State Council said social credit will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious”, warning that the “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust”.
The documents also detail a long list of professions that will face particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists, doctors, veterinarians and tour guides.
The biggest questions about the system, however, surround the practicality of collecting so much offline data about citizens.
“I think there are parts of it that can be implemented within this timeline, the online stuff for example. But the offline behavior, how are you going to collect this behavioral data? Are you going to have police running around watching whether people get into arguments in the street, or in hospitals seeing how people treat their doctors?” Rein asked. “My feeling is that they will do something, but it might be a scaled down version.”