What do the Chinese think of morality

Social credit system China on the way to an IT dictatorship

Round, modern and gigantic: it stands there like a stranded spaceship, the glass town hall of the eastern Chinese city of Rongcheng. Zhang Jian came that morning to check his social credit score. The 42-year-old fills out the forms and hands them over to the employee at the municipal office for social credit management.

"I work for a public agency, for the forestry department. I'm here because I need an assessment for a promotion - and for that I have to get my social credit balance. If it is not good enough, I will not be promoted. But I'm not worried about that. I watch my demeanor and actions. I shouldn't have major deductions. "

The Chinese coastal city of Rongcheng started to introduce a social credit system back in 2014. The idea behind it is radical and simple: the state collects as much data as possible, compiles it and evaluates it. Every citizen gets a points account. And on this basis, the state can then punish or even reward. Zhang Jian from the forestry department knows what to look for in everyday life.

Zhang Jian gets his score at the Citizenship Bureau. (Axel Dorloff)

"If I drive over the traffic light when it is red, the account balance goes down. It all comes up here. The public offices are all connected. If you misbehave in public, for example, you are involved in a brawl, you get up immediately the black list. My work in the forestry department is also included in the social credit system. If the citizens are not satisfied with our service, they can complain. This then has an impact on my score. "

Red light crossed: five points deduction

The approximately 670,000 residents of Rongcheng have to show their social credit point balance on a regular basis: for a possible promotion at an employer, for membership in the Communist Party of China, for applying for a loan at the bank. Nothing works without a good rating. An Lin is a clerk in the Social Credit Management Office. Before handing the sheet with his account balance to Zhang from the forestry department, she explains the point system.

"The score is initially the same for everyone, namely exactly 1,000. This number then increases over time - or becomes lower. The highest rating is AAA. You need a score of at least 1050 points, 50 more than the original 1,000. Then it goes down with AA and then A and so on. The worst rating is D - that's below 599 points. "

Those with an A rating are on the red list, the others are on the black list. Those on the red list are given preferential treatment: in the case of admissions for schools, social benefits or even when taking out insurance. Those from the C group are regularly checked and given certain restrictions. This can be, for example, the reduction of social assistance. Those who appear in the lowest class D no longer qualify for management positions, receive certain services and lose their creditworthiness.

Rongcheng tries his hand at beach tourism - and is a successful test region for the government (Deutschlandradio / Axel Dorloff)
All things that the 42-year-old Zhang Jiang does not threaten for the time being. This morning remains a good morning for him. His social credit score: 1,015 points, an A + rating. He looks at his piece of paper and beams.

"Here, look, I have a few prints there. Five in total. Once, because I went through the traffic light when it was red. But here: My performance at work, I got 20 plus points for that! If I had a B get, there would be nothing with the promotion. Civil servants, like me, need at least an A. "

Cornerstone of the moral order

In Rongcheng, more than 50 public administrations and other institutions are sending information about their citizens for the social credit system. Marital status, criminal records, traffic offenses, credit history, information from the tax authorities and the social security funds. Or information from mobile phone contracts with state telecommunications companies. The Chinese software giant Kingdee has developed a platform through which the data is collected and evaluated. The amount of data that the state collects about its citizens is huge.

One of the key strategists behind China's social credit system is Zhang Zheng. He is an economics professor at the renowned Peking University. The campus of the best university in the country is located in the northwest of the Chinese capital. It looks like a small town of its own: lots of parks, lots of green, tall trees and stately buildings.

Economics professor Zhang heads the research center for China's social credit system. He advises the Chinese government on this project. His vision: a comprehensive system of evaluation, punishment and rewarding of the citizens - and also of the companies in the country. For Zhang, this system is a future cornerstone of the moral order of Chinese society.

"It is a system for both - for the company and for the individual citizen. Just one example: If a young person wants to get married and the parents are unsure about the chosen partner, they can inquire about their score in the social credit system. There is Marriage agencies that already use it. Politicians have to decide what information about citizens can be collected. For example, whether it should be recorded, whether you regularly go for walks with your dog or visit your parents - there has not yet been any Specifications. It depends on the needs of the respective cities and districts. "

Rongcheng is considered a showcase project

The Chinese government's first guidelines for a social credit system have been in place since 2014. It says: By 2020, the most comprehensive, interlinked system should be built across the country. There are currently dozens of pilot projects in China. Many local governments are in the process of building a social credit system. Rongcheng was one of the first cities to deal with it. The city is considered a successful showcase project, says expert Zhang.

"The city of Rongcheng has tried a lot. A lot with success. In Rongcheng, drivers give way to pedestrians at the zebra strip because it is rewarded with points. Even if you don't have to under traffic law. In Rongcheng, there is excellent order. The Residents, the medical and economic environment - all very good. We conclude that the social credit system is good for the atmosphere in the economy and society. "

Even if a lot is still under construction - China has already started sanctioning its citizens. The Supreme Court has kept a so-called black list of defaulting debtors, fare dodgers and other financial delinquents since 2013. In China's high-speed trains you are already warned - also in English - that anyone who does not have a valid ticket will be blacklisted.

Those who do not repay their loan or drive without a ticket, who get into debt in dealing with money, are in many cases no longer allowed to travel by express train or plane in China. In the past year alone, this penalty was imposed around 6.7 million times, according to official information from the Supreme Court. A young man who has already been punished does not want to meet us, but is talking on the phone. He is 27 years old, a cameraman and comes from Beijing.

"I am being punished for issuing a loan guarantee for someone else. The loan was not paid back and I was fined. When I tried to buy a plane ticket, I did not get one. Then I found out that I basically no longer have tickets That was in November 2016. I can't buy plane tickets or tickets for the express train. "

Since every ticket purchase for plane or train in China works with the ID number, the buyer can be identified without any problems. Ticket bans are implemented quickly - but so far have only been issued for illegal and illegal handling of money. What is new in China's social credit system is that the social and moral behavior of its citizens is included in the assessment. In perspective, all information should result in a large whole. The transparent citizen, about whom everything is known.

Digital development of the surveillance state

A system that rewards its citizens for morally conforming behavior in the spirit of the Communist Party of China - and punishes everything else, such a system also knows losers.

Murong Xuecun is one of these losers. He does not have a good standing with China's authorities. As a blogger, novelist and dissident, he repeatedly criticizes the Chinese system of censorship and the suppression of dissenting opinions in the People's Republic. In official China, it is considered a disruptive factor. And when you meet Murong Xuecun for an espresso in a Beijing cafe and ask about surveillance and social control, his expression darkens. For him, one thing is clear: the authoritarian state of China is gearing up for the digital age with the social credit system.

"The Chinese government wants to control its 1.4 billion citizens better and more efficiently in the future. The leadership in Beijing has understood that the old tools of control are no longer effective: residence registration, police, personal spies. That is not enough in the digital age of social Media. In order to further develop the system of social control, the state is creating a social credit system. It is part of a totalitarian Internet society of the 21st century. "

Even under China's founder Mao Zedong, Danweis controlled the citizens in the interests of the government (dpa picture alliance / Chinafotopress)
And a completely new form of social control. It is the digital advancement of the informant and surveillance state. Historically, this has a long tradition in China. Even under the founder of the state Mao Zedong there were the so-called Danweis, workers' units. Everyone in China was subordinate to such a workers' unit. And the Danweis have controlled the citizens in the interests of the government. Misconduct was documented and punished. This form of social control is now being thought of in the digital future. And people like the dissident and critical author Murong Xuecun will have a hard time in such a social credit system.

"In China everyone already has one or more profiles with government agencies. People like me have a special security profile because we are perceived as a threat. But in the age of the Internet, the social credit system is a completely new approach. And it scares me. We have I have no idea what kind of information is being collected. "

One thing is clear, however: Anyone who criticizes the Chinese Communist Party on social media or submits petitions critical of the government will receive minus points in the social credit system and face consequences. Traces on the net are pursued mercilessly, the state can harm you at will.

"What worries me most is that your comments on the Internet will also have an impact on your social credit. For people like me, who have had many social media accounts banned, there is no doubt that we are one of the big losers in a social credit system . But do I have any options in China about what to do about it? No, I have no choice. "

China wants to bring all of the country's databases together by 2020 if possible. And then the big corporations should also deliver. China's internet giants such as Alibaba and Tencent have already introduced their own credit rating systems based on their customer data. These also include the buying and paying behavior of customers. Li Yingyun, the head of development of Alibaba's credit rating system, gave one of his rare interviews to the Chinese business magazine Caixin a few months ago - quote:

"Anyone who plays video games ten hours a day is classified as a lazy person. Those who buy diapers frequently are in all likelihood a parent and have a certain level of responsibility."

Almost every action, every behavior of the citizens on the Internet leaves traces. As far as possible for social credit, everything should flow into the Chinese system of reward and punishment, guilt and atonement.

"The overall atmosphere here has improved"

Back in the coastal town of Rongcheng. Twenty years ago almost only smallholders lived here, today the city is mainly trying its hand at beach tourism. With around 670,000 inhabitants, Rongcheng is considered a small town in China. But for the Chinese social credit system it is the most important and - in the sense of the Chinese government - the most successful test region.

In a suburb of Rongcheng we meet 37-year-old Sui Yuxiang in a restaurant. There are clams, grilled eel and meat skewers. Sui Yuxiang is responsible for the social credit system in the small district of Fulushan. For them there is no doubt: people's morale has improved through social control and evaluation.

"My area includes 260 families, we have a total of 560 inhabitants. Once a month there is a new social credit point balance, on the 25th of each month. Then we see who gets which evaluation. Those who help others or get involved get additional points, five or ten. And the more points someone has, the more honest they are. The overall atmosphere here has improved. People are more active and committed, the quality of living together has improved. "

A large plaque hangs on the wall of a house in Fulushan Village. There, photos of the people are shown as role models. Those residents with particularly good social credit points. Sui Yuxiang proudly points to the nearly three-meter-wide board. "We subdivide here according to four virtues: good behavior, support your own parents, help other people, stand up against criminal behavior. The number of stars shows how well people are classified. Only residents from our village are on this board."

Is considered morally impeccable and a role model for the whole village: Chen Shengzhang (Deutschlandradio / Axel Dorloff)

According to this, Chen Shengzhang is considered to be of particular integrity and morally impeccable. He lives with his wife in the village of Fulushan in a simple courtyard house; the two children have long since moved out. He hung the small, red plaques that he received as a reward for his good social credit points above his entrance gate. He is proud to be seen as a role model for the whole village.

"We have had the social credit system in our village for several years now. Whatever we do, we think about our credit points. We support the village wherever possible. We very often clean and sweep the public areas. Garbage or even just to put grass in front of your own door - that is not allowed. If someone does not follow these rules, he is considered dishonest. If the village chief asks for something, we follow. Those who keep everything clean and in order are considered a role model.

The political leadership in Beijing wants to use the social credit system to educate people to be morally impeccable citizens. Its purpose is to improve the order of the market and order in society. In keeping with the model of China's President Xi Jinping: the "harmonious society". Critic Murong Xuecun thinks this is absurd.

"China is always talking about the harmonious society. But the harmony that President Xi Jinping means is different from the harmony that people like me understand. By harmony, President Xi means a strict order in which only one voice is allowed and none Opposition. But a society that is so strictly controlled by the government cannot be innovative or creative. "

There are doubts whether China will really be able to bring together all information about its citizens in one database by 2020. But the Chinese leadership's social credit project has so far been unrivaled anywhere in the world in terms of size and scope. No other country is pushing so radically to socially control its citizens in the digital age. And then evaluate, reward, and punish.

Repetition of September 9, 2017.