From China to Facebook

This post presents an abridged translation of an article appeared on the June 19 issue of the Italian magazine ‘Pagina 99.’ Speakers and readers or romance languages may access the full text of the article at this link.

Readers of this blog can find an integral transcript of the interviews given by Larry Catà Backer and Zhu Shaoming here and here. Flora Sapio spoke to Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi by phone, therefore an interview transcript is not available.  


From China to Facebook
Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi and Gennari Santori



Take a picture of your face and upload it to a mobile app managed by your city’s government. Tap in your ID card number and, if you live in Shanghai, within 24 hours you will receive all of the information the government has about you. If you have been a good boy and you have your papers in order, you will be rewarded. Your reward may be a discount coupon on your next flight back home, or free access to an exclusive arline lounge. But, what happens if you have been bad? We don’t yet know.


In all likelihood, a year from now you may aim your smartphone at your neighbour and know all about her. For now, there is only so much information you local government can lawfully disclose. (…) But, you can already obtain plenty of information on your favorite restaurant’s food hygiene standards…

Local governments all across China are competing to meet the objective Beijing has set for 2020: the construction of a social credit system to oversee the conduct of all legal and physical persons who live or operate in the People’s Republic. We know what you’re thinking. China is different. And also far from Italy. But the truth is, should they agree to comply with the will that drives the social credit system, all the various ‘Apples’, ‘Googles’ and ‘Facebooks’ would find a goldmine.

An Ambitious Experiment in Social Management


As a matter of fact, China’s experiment is the most ambitious governance experiment in the world which, according to China’s Five-Year Plan, will involve almost one billion and a half people within three years. As Pennsylvania State University’s Professor Larry Catà Backer points out: 


Life in the Age of Algorithms

(…) in the meantime, e-commerce Giant Ali Baba has launched Zhima xinyong fen, also known as ‘Sesame Credit’, a complex system of interlocking algorithms which traces internet users’ consumption choices and computes their lender’s score. Their score, however, is not calculated on the basis of how much money they spend online, but also on the basis of what they purchase and how their ‘virtual friends’ behave. 


The system was born in response to a concrete need: attempting to find a way in a fast growing market. In China, bank loans, mortgages, online payments and credit cards have been growing exponentially. Today more than 30 per cent of Chinese citizens has a credit card, twice as much as only five years go. 

At the beginning of 2015, China’s central bank gave eight companies an authorization to run pilot projects to evaluate citizens. The stated goas was creating a nation-wide system by 2020, to evaluate not only lenders’ scores, but also judge citizens through their online behavior. The system should ‘raise the levels of mental honesty and credibility of an entire society’ – this is true also for companies which will have to regulate themselves to comply with the governments’ dictates. 


According to Flora Sapio, who is exploring this theme and its broader implications,

“It is still too early to know what shape the social credit system will eventually take. If correctly applied, the system will contribute to a better functioning of markets, by placing a check on unlawful conducts by citizens and enterprises.” 


Zhu Shaoming, the chairman of the Foundation for Law and International Affairs, added that: 

“Once the new model of social credit is well accepted, it might in turn affect business models throughout the rest of the world”. Because of this reason, “It is very important to establish how the data will be managed, applied, and protected. It is also important to leave space for private rights that are not monitored. “

 © Flora Sapio 2017

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