Explainer: What you should know about China’s Social Credit System

April 26, 2019

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Communist authorities in China are in the process of developing a social credit system, a nationwide technology-driven reputational system that will allow the government to more effectively monitor and control its citizens through incentives of punishment and reward.

What is a reputational system?

Reputation is the recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability. The Bible has a lot to say about the importance of reputation and of maintaining a reputation for exhibiting godly qualities. For example, Ecclesiastes 7:1a says, “A good name is better than precious ointment,” and in 1 Timothy 3:7 the Apostle Paul says that pastors “must be well thought of by outsiders.”

As our interactions increase, and we have more dealings with strangers than with family and friends, it becomes more difficult for those we engage with to know our reputation. Reputation systems are systems—usually computer-based—that allow people to provide feedback about an individual’s reputation, especially their trustworthiness or competence

One of the most commonly used reputational systems is consumer credit reports and their corresponding credit score. Consumer reporting agencies receive, compile, and maintain the history provided by the creditors and lenders to help people make decisions about the creditworthiness of someone who wants to borrow money or pay on credit. The rise of e-commerce has lead to the increase of online reputation systems, such as Yelp and eBay’s buyer-seller feedback process.

What is the social credit system?

The social credit system is China’s attempt to create a national reputational system by building “mechanisms for rewarding trustworthiness and punishing untrustworthiness.”

In the West, reputational systems are created and coordinated by private firms, though they are subject to government regulation, and tend to be limited to commercial transactions. In China, the government has chosen a top-down approach, coordinating with private companies to collect data that can be used for an all-encompassing ranking of a person’s trustworthiness.

Once collected, the data can be used to limit an individual’s rights and privileges, and affect how they can engage with and in society. According to the system’s founding document, released by the State Council in 2014, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

How will China’s social credit system work?

While China is run by a centralized, authoritarian regime, the national credit system is expected to be surprisingly localized. As Nicole Kobie of Wired explains, there's no one social credit system. Instead, local governments have their own social record systems that work differently. Kobie adds that the goal of the government system is for businesses to be given a “unified social credit code” and citizens an identity number, all linked to permanent record. 

Simina Mistreanu of Foreign Policy points out that the national credit system planned for 2020 “will be an ‘ecosystem’ made up of schemes of various sizes and reaches, run by cities, government ministries, online payment providers, down to neighborhoods, libraries, and businesses, say Chinese researchers who are designing the national scheme.”

 “It will all be interconnected by an invisible web of information,” says Mistreanu.

Why is China implementing this system?

Western nations often take for granted how they have been shaped by Christian values. Even in countries that are rejecting the faith, the virtues instilled by centuries of Christian belief continue to lead to social trust among the population. China has been much less influenced by Christianity, and so lacks this “cultural software.”

A recent survey found that 76 percent of China’s population say “mutual mistrust between citizens” is a problem in Chinese society. As Adam Minter notes, social-credit systems are viewed by many in China as a means of bridging that trust gap.

This distrust is largely the result of previous attempts by the communist government to control its people, says sociologist Zhang Lifan, as quoted in Foreign Policy:

People often expect to be cheated or to get in trouble without having done anything. This anxiety, Zhang says, stems from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when friends and family members were pitted against one another and millions of Chinese were killed in political struggles.

“It’s a problem the ruling party itself has created,” Zhang says, “and now it wants to solve it.

How has the system been used so far?

While the system is still under construction, blacklists of noncompliant individuals and legal entities form the core of the current stage of implementation, says the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“Naming and shaming through the wide publication of the names, photos, state ID numbers, and in some cases even home addresses of blacklisted persons, is an integral part of this system,” claim the authors of the Mercator report.

A prime example is the way the system is being used to inhibit travel. According to the Associated Press, in 2018 citizens were blocked 17.5 million times from buying airline tickets and 5.5 million times from buying train tickets because of “social credit” offenses such as unpaid taxes and fines. Another 128 people were blocked from leaving China due to unpaid taxes.

How might the system be used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities?

The Social Credit System will allow the Chinese government to use advances in technology to gain even more control over the country’s persecuted religious groups.

Early this year Chinese authorities were caught collecting DNA from Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that has over a million members being detained in mass detention camps. Human rights groups say a comprehensive DNA database could be used to chase down any Uighurs who resist conforming to the government's campaign of “re-education.” The government is also using a secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, according to the New York Times.

The facial recognition technology is integrated into China’s network of 176 million surveillance cameras to look exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance. This allows the government to keeps “records of their comings and goings for search and review.”

Technology based surveillance is already rampant in the nation. The Beijing Public Safety Bureau claims that one hundred percent of Beijing is now covered by surveillance cameras. The regional authorities also shut down one of the largest Protestant “house churches” churches in Beijing after church leaders refused to allow the government to install surveillance cameras inside the building.

This type of surveillance data is expected to be incorporated into the social credit system, as the country expands to 450 million cameras by next year.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24