Social Credit in China and in The West: Where’s The Difference?
Thoughts on ‘Monitoring, Assessment, and Reward’
In 2012, a few years before the words ‘China’s social credit system’ became a staple of the media discourse on China, I authored an academic article (in this book) where I traced the origins of China’s monitoring and governance techniques, explaining why none of the techniques adopted as part of the efforts to construct a social credit system is really new.
During a presentation delivered at a workshop held in Shanghai on June 8, 2017 (slides available here), Larry Catà Backer made a very similar argument. Therefore, in this post I present some further thoughts on whether the social credit system is unique to China, and social credit systems operate in the West.
It is not by chance that these questions were the first questions to be addressed by the presentation.
The reason why I am commenting upon them depends on the fact that these are the only two questions about China’s social credit system to which an immediate answer can be provided. The question as what value the social credit system has for Chinese or Western society, as well as other questions asked during the presentation, are in my opinion open for debate. The direction such a debate will take, as well as the findings the debate will generate are, in a sense, predictible.
The Uniqueness and Ordinariness of Social Credit in China
As debate on social credit in China is starting, it is already possible to answer both these questions in the affirmative: yes, the social credit system is unique to China but, social credit systems operate in the West too. But…isn’t there a logical contradiction between the first and the second proposition? Well, classical logic books are not the real world after all, and the social credit system is dense with complexities we are just beginning to understand. Trust me, there is no contradiction.
The social credit system is unique to China…
The uniqueness of social credit is not in the fact social credit is a policy of the Chinese Communist Party. The peculiarity of the system lies in its structure, not in its ideology. Each one of the governmental elements of social credit has been operating in Western countries at least since the 1970s, if not before. Each one of these elements has become a normal part of how government and public administration function, how private enterprises operate on markets, how judicial organs decide the cases brought before them. They are a normal part of our everyday lives as well. So familiar have they become to us, as to escape notice.
However, when we observe these very same elements in a Chinese context, we are struck by their ‘uniqueness’, their efficiency, their pervasiveness. China’s credit system efficiency and pervasiveness are a function of China’s capability to integrate each one of the various components of social credit in a way Western countries are still incapable of. China’s capability eventually stems from features of its bureaucratic apparatus, from the softening of the public-private divide in the sphere of governance, from the acceptance of market mechanisms, and a will to ensure their smooth operation.
…but social credit systems operate in the West too.
Social credit is nothing else than a form of hybrid, private-public governance. There is nothing really new in public administration borrowing governance techniques from private companies, and using these to rule the population of Western countries. After all, this is what public-private partnerships and new governance are about. These topics are the staples of public administration studies, management, and more.
As I have explained elsewhere, when China started its modernization drive in 1978, it abandoned earlier governance approaches created in the Soviet Union, to embrace all those governance techniques created in the West. Generally speaking, Western governance techniques were thought to be more effective in developing the economy, and in governing the population through softer, indirect means. As Western governance techniques were adopted by China, they were however adapted to China’s political, economic, governmental, and societal context, until they gradually morphed into an entity of its own.
A Variant of Modern, Post-1970s Governance
Because of this reason, China’s social credit system should be considered a variant of a wider governance system, which is based on the blurring of all distinctions between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ sphere. True, in Western countries we may not use the ‘honest’ app to check information about our neighbours but, who can in full honesty say to have never had a peek at the Twitter or Facebook profile of a potential tenant or employee? This simple, ordinary act, involves private citizens performing checks which – in China – are a prerogative of the state.
So while the subjects who perform checks may vary, in different contexts the same information is harvested and analyzed in similar ways to reach conclusions about your reputation and mine.
Both systems are premised on values – yes, values such a honesty, credibility, the ability to maintain one’s promises. But, while in the West these values are promoted either by one’s embracing of a religious confession or as a result of following an individual ethical system, in China they are promoted by the state.
Both systems are not without challenges: what makes you honest in your friend’s eyes may make you dishonest in the eyes of your enemy. A conduct which may be entirely normal in the Mediterranean, such as keeping the blinds shut during a very hot sunny day, might be seen as a marker of suspicion in countries with shorter daylight hours. The degree of pigmentation of a person’s skin may lead to the making of unproven assumptions about that person’s morality, honesty, work ethics and so on.
These challenges, however, lie not in the blurring of the lines between ‘public’ and ‘private’.
A neat, rigid division between public and private sector may exist more in the world of legal forms and categories, than in the reality of new governance, as this technique emerged in Europe more or less forty years ago. What makes China different from the West is that, in China, the very pretense of such a division is collapsing. Perhaps, the division many of us are familiar with, in China existed only in the eyes of beholders.
In China, a contiguity between Party, state, public, private, NGOs, society is seen as the norm, and it is openly acknowledged. Holism is not just a perspective in ancient Chinese cosmology – it is very much a feature active in the most different organizational contexts and circumstances.
How this feature will shape China’s approaches to social credit remains to be seen.
Text and pictures © Flora Sapio 2017