For several years the media have been fascinated with China’s social credit system. Every couple of months the topic raises its ugly head again. Scary stories about an Orwellian society where everybody gets a score have the public rage on social media against the inhumane situation in China. But having studied the social credit system for the same number of years I have found that the media not only presents misinterpretations to their viewers and readers, it also knowingly misinforms them.
I worked as an international volunteer at a Chinese NGO in a time of scandals about China’s Red Cross. It was the same time in which 18 people ignored a toddler in Foshan, who got run over in an alley. Ever since those days I have been studying the causes of habitual distrust and apathy in Chinese society. As such I’ve been highly interested in the goal of China’s social credit system (SCS) to – as Chinese government describes it – “create a trust-based economy and society”.
The Myths the Media Keeps Spreading
When I first started reading about the social credit system, I saw a possible solution to China’s trust issues. But I also saw the potential dangers of abuse of such a system. But the more I read about the topic, the more I noticed major misconceptions about the SCS among media reporters. Many were spreading factually incorrect information, the most tenacious of these being:
- There is one single social credit system.
- In this system everybody in China has (or gets) a 3-digit score based on their behaviour.
- The internet companies are sharing all their data, e.g. about the posts of individuals on social media, with the government.
- The social credit system is like an episode of Black Mirror.
Most of these misconceptions are normally accompanied by descriptions of the SCS as an Orwellian system meant to keep the population in line. More recently, it has also been presented as an integral part of the total state surveillance system, including technologies such as facial recognition cameras. The constant repeating of these factual errors made me decide to write an in-depth Dutch article on these misconceptions. I also delivered a lecture at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, which I decided to record and put on YouTube. It was an attempt to offer a more balanced and nuanced picture of what the social credit systems really are. My own understanding of the SCS is largely based on the work of several scholars that study the relevant Chinese government documents describing the elements of the social credit system. Among the most outspoken of them are people such as Rogier Creemers and Jeremy Daum.
One of the more recent all-time lows in misrepresentation of the SCS is a documentary by the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) called Leave No Dark Corner. Not only does the documentary repeat all common misconceptions, it also lumped many topics like surveillance cameras and the mistreatment of Uyghers in Xinjiang together. Now, highly disturbing as these topics are, they are unrelated to and not part of the SCS. Jeremy Daum, one of the aforementioned experts on the SCS, responded to the documentary on Twitter: “There are so many things wrong with China and the world today, there is simply no reason to make things up, and much of what is in this piece is wild speculation or outright fabrication, belittling the real struggles of some featured in it.” His full response can be read here.
It is worrisome that media are presenting factually incorrect documentaries. It is even more worrisome that several international media, among which Al Jazeera, CBC and Dutch news program Een Vandaag, have recycled this documentary for their own programs. In this way misinformation is further spread around the globe. Een Vandaag made things worse by adding remarks by Wouter van Noort, a Dutch tech journalist of the respected newspaper NRC: “If you jaywalk, points are deducted. If you say something bad on social media, points are also deducted. The same happens when you don’t pay your fines. Through social media, cameras on the streets and smartphones they gather all kinds of data to determine your score.”
All these claims are incorrect, which makes me wonder where this journalist did his research. And why he said these things on national TV while he also claims to have spoken with Rogier Creemers. Not only is Creemers an expert on the SCS, he has made great efforts to refute the misconception that there is such a things as a point system. When called out about these errors van Noort explained himself on Twitter by saying that he doesn’t speak or read Mandarin and therefore depended mainly on English sources and media. Later on he admitted that something might have gone wrong with the use of these source. But then the damage was already done …
My Personal Experience with Journalists
Twice have I been called by journalists wanting to know more about the social credit system. And twice have they ignored a truthful explanation, backed by thorough academic research by the likes of Daum and Creemers.
When called by a journalist of Belgian newspaper De Morgen I told him that there really is no such thing as a scoring system. I explained how people tend to confuse Alibaba’s Sesame Credit with the social credit system. The next day I saw the following opening of his article:
Starting in 2020, China will keep track of the trustworthiness of all its citizens through a social point system. The way in which several Chinese internet companies are currently experimenting with social rankings feels almost Orwellian.
Forgot to pay a parking ticket? Bought an addictive video game online? Or picking the wrong friends on social media? Than your social score will drop several points.
Okay, maybe I hadn’t explained things well enough. Or maybe he misunderstood and was confused. But I couldn’t recognise myself in the quotes that were used in his article.
On November 2nd this year, I got another request for an interview from a freelance journalist working for The Spectator. He had just returned from China where he had recorded an English announcement on a highspeed train, informing the passengers that misbehaviour would be recorded in their “individual credit information system” (note, no mention of points or a score here). He posted the video on Twitter where it has since received more than 32.000 likes, 19.000 retweets and 1.700 replies.
One of the replies came from Rogier Creemers himself: “And yet another misunderstanding of the Social Credit System. This is not about some sort of quantitative scoring system. There’s a blacklist for people who misbehave on trains.” Creemers included a link to an academic article he wrote about the topic. His response immediately resulted in a reaction from another Twitter user describing himself in his profile as ‘Anti-regressive left, anti-far right, NeoLiberal pro-free speech/capitalism/science‘: “Stop either being naive or intentionally pushing propaganda.” This is representative of the types of feedback that academics and other well-informed writers receive when presenting facts about the SCS. They are considered panda-huggers and secret supporters of the Communist Party of China. Thereby suggestion that they would agree to many serious human rights violations by the CCP is insulting to say the least.
I sent the following response to the journalist: “Most of the mass media reports I have read are taking things out of context, misunderstanding things (e.g. Sesame Credit is not the SCS), are overgeneralizing things (there’s only 1 or 2 local experiments with scores) and generally making ‘juicy stories’. This could either be done to get more clicks or by simply copying other people’s errors and lazy research. I have been interviewed about the SCS in the past and the concerned journalist decided to disregard my thorough explanation and present shocking misconceptions anyway.”
When he asked me “Is there anything you’d consider the definitive (non-massive book) read on social credit as it actually is?” I pointed him to Creemers’ recent paper about the SCS in which he explains (among other things) that the SCS is not a scoring system. I also mentioned a good article that Christopher Udemans recently published on Technode and referred him to Jeremy Daum’s work. He thanked me and hoping I had given him a trove of balanced, well-researched information I told him: “You’re welcome. And thanks for taking the time to really look into this, unlike most …”.
Then I received a Twitter message and e-mail asking if I would be available for an interview. I gladly confirmed, believing that there finally was a journalist willing to write a factual report about the topic. On Saturday November 3rd we spoke for no less than 40 minutes. But as soon as I saw the title of his article in The Spectator, I realised this had been wasted time:
In China’s new surveillance state, everyone will be watched, reviewed and rated
The article included the following segments:
Social credit works in a similar way to how we rate our Uber drivers and Deliveroo orders. It allows individuals to be rated and scored. Good behaviour is rewarded with points, while bad behaviour is penalised. Run a red light? Lose some points. Donated to charity? Bonus points. Sold contaminated food in your restaurant? That’s going to hit your social credit rating hard.
The score is constantly updated. If it falls below an acceptable threshold, then it’s game over. You could be denied the right to travel, purchase luxury goods or gain access to services. In some cases, you may even be publicly shamed with your face displayed on billboards. An infraction in one area of life could easily come back to haunt you in another.
Even though the article contains a lot of correct and more nuanced information than most mainstream media, the information above is simply not true. And this misunderstanding has been pointed out to the concerned journalist multiple times. I had mentioned it in the interview. This could not be a case of misunderstanding or misquoting. After all, he had recorded our conversation. But remembering my previous experience with the Belgian journalist so had I …
This is what I explained:
And our interview wasn’t the only time he was informed that there is no such thing as a scoring system. It is also discussed in many of the in the videos by Rogier Creemers and myself (which he claimed to have watched), as well as Creemers aforementioned paper and Udemans’ article I had referred him to. Why then do journalists insists on repeating this misinformation? Are they simply considering the claims by other international media to be reliable, even when refuted by various well-informed China experts and academics? Are they simply parroting their colleague’s misinformation out of laziness and lack of thorough research? That might be the reason in most cases, including Wouter van Noort’s statements on Een Vandaag. But what if a journalist cannot possibly defend himself by claiming ignorance? What if he had all the facts and opportunity to inform the people truthfully? Is the media knowingly including false facts in their articles to ‘spice up’ a story? To make it more sellable as a freelancer? To help the publications gain more readers and thereby clicks and advertising revenue? Is this intentionally planted fake news? And if this is the case, what does that tell us about the other news we read?
Maybe they are just knowingly feeding the public what it wants to hear. Maybe Creemers was right when he said the fascination with the SCS has much to do with our own fears about technology and the rise of a new world power.
To close on a more positive note, there fortunately are still media outlets that are willing to tell fact from fiction. But if a normally website like Foreign Policy, that is normally highly critical of China, can present the truth, why can’t our mainstream media?