China: Xi Jinping’s problematic quest to control messages posted on the Internet

A few days ago we published an explanatory article on the social credit system implemented by China. The government published a bill on November 14 that will set the course for how the country will build this system. Contrary to popular belief outside of China, China’s national social credit system is not fully constructed. For the moment, it only exists in spare parts. However, in the West, many fantasies circulate about it, in particular the idea that there is an omniscient algorithm which evaluates the daily behavior of the Chinese. Such an algorithm does not exist in reality.

The true social credit system focuses on promoting trustworthiness in business, consumption, education, and almost every other aspect of daily life. On paper, this seems like a good idea but in this article I will try to explain why it is more complicated than it seems.


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China’s social credit system could impact social media and free speech

The fact that the establishment of this social credit system may have impacts on social networks and, more broadly, on freedom of expression in China reveals how the noble objective of building trust within society can be problematic in practice.

The key question to ask is: who judges whether a comment posted on social networks or whether an Internet user is trustworthy? Answering this question is an incredibly difficult task for platforms around the world, such as Twitter and Facebook, who are still struggling to provide an answer.

In China, however, the government seems confident that it can be the final arbiter. So, as Shazeda Ahmed, a researcher at Princeton University, told me, it is necessary to ask: what does it mean to be trustworthy or honest in the eyes of the Chinese government?

In 2019, a draft regulation was introduced by the Chinese cyberspace administration to build a social credit system in the digital sector. This states that government agencies may consider an individual or company an “untrustworthy entity” for “manufacturing, publishing or relaying information contrary to social mores, commercial morals or honesty and credit”. .

While some information can be verified and debunked, concepts like “social mores” and “honesty” are often too vague to define objectively. It is therefore up to the government to identify what constitutes a moral value.

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We have already had glimpses of how this could turn into a disaster. In the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Wuhan local government punished eight people for posting “rumors” about the virus that allegedly undermined citizens’ trust. Li Wenliang, a medical whistleblower who told his friends in a private chat group that a SARS-like virus was spreading, he was summoned by police for “spreading lies online”. Later, his death from coronavirus sparked a national outpouring of anger against government-led information control.

And this is just one incident. But as the idea of ​​establishing social solvency increasingly seeps into other regulations, it highlights the risks of normalizing a practice in which government makes moral judgments for its citizens. .

Two weeks ago, China’s cyberspace administration finalized regulations entirely devoted to “online comments”. Its main goal is to subject social media interactions – including new formats such as live streams – to the same strict controls that China has always exercised over other online content.

The rules aren’t really part of the larger social credit system, but I still found similar language in the text of the law. It asks social media platforms to “carry out credit assessments of the conduct of Internet users when posting comments” and to “carry out credit assessments of the management of comments posted by producers-operators of public accounts” .

The idea is that if an influencer or internet user posts things that are not trustworthy, it should reflect in the person’s credit score. And the results will determine “the extent of services and features made available to people on certain platforms.”


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This isn’t the only concrete example of how the Chinese government is using the importance of “creditworthiness” or “trust” to justify rolling out more rules. This was also verified when the government decided to establish a celebrity blacklist who promote “bad” morals, to crack down on bots and spam on social networks or to assign responsibilities to the administrators of private discussion groups.

Some social platforms manage their own “credit scores”

All this to say that the continued development of China’s social credit system is often synchronous with the development of more authoritarian policies. “As China increasingly focuses on people’s social and cultural life, by further regulating the content of entertainment, education and speeches, these rules will also be subject to the application of credit,” wrote the jurist Jeremy Daum in 2021.

Nevertheless, I would caution against the tendency to exaggerate perceived risks. This is what happened repeatedly when the words “social credit system” were mentioned.

The good news is that so far the intersection of social credit and digital expression control is very limited. The draft 2019 regulations aimed at setting up a social credit system in the digital sector have still not been adopted. And much of the talk about setting up credit reporting systems for social media — like the one called for by the latest online comment rule — feels more like wishful thinking than practical guidance to this stage. Some social platforms manage their own “credit scores”. Weibo, for example, has one for every user and Douyin has one for shopping influencers, but these are more secondary features that few Chinese consider a priority.

Today, instead of worrying about the theoretical risk of using a social credit system to stifle freedom of expression, it is more important to devote time and resources to identifying the mechanisms of censors already in place and functioning like those that social networks regularly use to filter messages and ban accounts that talk about politically sensitive events. These are bigger and more pressing threats to Chinese internet users than a social credit system that even the government has yet to fully define.

Article by Zeyi Yang, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.


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China: Xi Jinping’s problematic quest to control messages posted on the Internet

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