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For now at least, China's citizens are embracing social-credit systems (bloomberg.com)
40 points by petethomas on Jan 25, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

As the article itself points out, the Chinese media is full of stories about Chinese people being targets of scams by food producers, eCommerce companies selling fakes, and scams by one another (dating scams and so on). These social-credit surveillance programs have been marketed to the people they're aimed at as a benefit that protects them from potential crime. It's the same everywhere - here in the UK we have the most CCTV cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world and they're always talked about by the government and the police as tools for "protecting the people from crime." TV documentaries about the police feature them 'following' criminals around town centres using CCTV. It's impressive. It works. The fact the cameras also gather data about everyone else who isn't a criminal is never mentioned.

People respond well to things that make them feel safer, regardless of whether they're actually safer, so privacy-invading surveillance technology is marketed as a something that does just that. The actual reason why governments want it, in order to keep the people in check, isn't good PR.

In the case of China, they've had decades of government PR telling the people to be fearful, and at the same time selling them the thing that means they can stop being fearful. It's not surprising the people like it.

> People respond well to things that make them feel safer, regardless of whether they're actually safer

So as privacy advocates, what do we say if we see a highly intrusive surveillance system that does make people actually safer?

It's entirely possible that a highly intrusive surveillance system could well be extremely effective in combatting crime - and I mean the "universally-agreed" crimes, not political crimes - as well as providing spying capabilities to keep the population in check. Now I don't know what impact Social Credit has on crime rates, but it's not self-evidently a stupid idea in that regard.

This is a difficult question because it boils down to whether we generally prefer safety over freedom.

Privacy is just one pillar of freedom, albeit a load-bearing one. Freedom will crumble if we strike down this pillar and as a society - or even as Western hemisphere - we have to evaluate if safety from (state-defined) crime ends up being worth near-zero privacy.

If I were to judge by some interviews I recently saw on "extra3", a comedic German television format [1], I increasingly fear that democracy, freedom and liberalism are doomed. Context: People at a meat convention (yes...) were asked about their opinions on climate change and animal farming.

Boomer-aged visitors and young visitors alike not only showed complete lack of understanding of ANY issue associated with large-scale animal husbandry. But they turned questions on their head and answered in a sort of stupid and ignorant way I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams. One example: "What do you think about animal suffering in mass animal husbandry?"

Answer, paraphrased, completely serious in tone: "Nothing, the humans here at this convention are also visiting in masses and obviously nobody suffers. They are all enjoying themselves, look around."

A question about CO2-impact of animal farming brought another response forward, that had me baffled: "There is no problem here, we have been eating meat for thousands of years and now suddenly it's supposed to be wrong. The climate didn't change over the millennia either!"

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra_3

People are looking for the right language to do what they want with dignity, but the specifics of the language and its content aren't of interest.

As someone who lived under a dictatorship I would argue that China and UK aren't the same thing. It sounds the same but it isn't. Smart dictators never break any laws. A clamp down on protestors is always described as protecting law abiding citizens from rowdy protestors. I bet if someone did text analysis of report written by police from democratic country Vs dictatorship who both had to break up a riot the language would be the same. The only difference would be the number of dead people. It's common for dictators to "remind" people of their power by killing a few.

In normal countries you have a strong civil society & consumer associations that have the teeth to bite these scammers.

I won't agree with the "normal countries", but I wonder at what point does a society become uncivil?

Obviously in a tribal village in the past you know who lived in the hut next door and it was like a big family who trusted each other (food was shared, mothers would take care of each others' kids). Maybe it's related to the Dunbar number?

From an outside perspective, Japan still seems extremely civil despite being very densely populated. I have never felt safer anywhere else as a visitor. I suspect a near-ubiquitous level of high homogeneous culture is a big factor.

And more importantly, strong entrepreneurship so you have many companies offering similar products, so that you can decide to "punish" with your wallet the companies that deceive you. It goes hand in hand.

That works for sugar water companies but private security not so much, unless you have a very very large wallet.

If by "normal" you mean a society with highly developed rule of law, institutional maturity, low corruption, etc., then I think you are talking about a small minority of countries.

“normal” might be a strong word when the society in question is the largest single one on the planet.

That’s not to say I agree with, or want to normalize, the Chinese government’s actions, though.

Where are these "normal" countries? The kind of scams GP mentions are rife here in the UK and from what I hear the story is the same pretty much everywhere.

You can drink your milk in relative safety.

The same capabilities that allow you to prevent crime are also always the same capabilities that allow you to prevent other kinds of unwanted behavior.

In the end, the solution is a high level of culture in a society. A level of culture that would mean crime is naturally low (it seems to differ a lot between cultures) and that enables trust in institutions designed to control the powers that can use force, e.g. law enforcement and secret services.

Nice article. I highly recommend watching Martin Jacques' TED talk [0] on this subject. It's interesting how people in China view the State as an intimate part of their family instead of something of an invasion, in contrast to societies in the West; which, I suspect, may be because of their collectivist roots.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imhUmLtlZpw

Because in really many chinese people cheat. And cheaters are so rampant that people would rather ask Big Brother to step up.

China started this national wide 诚信 campaign in 2001, during which time the Chinese society is utter chaos and China promptly joined the WTO. China entered its economic boom, but the ultimate outcome is the social credit system.

Highly recommended CCC talk here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18773303

P.S. I think since western kept bitching about the IP theft problem so much, companies should use the social credit system as a targeted weapon to punish cheaters. It works.

We hear a lot about Chinese cheating, from sat scores to ip theft. I've long wondered - why is cheating endemic in China whereas you don't hear the same complaints about people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore; places with large ethnic Chinese populations which should be very similar culturally to mainland China. It seems implausible that the value systems in these places would have so widely diverged in a relatively short amount of time. Or perhaps it is the legal and regulatory environment (or lack thereof) that brings out the worst in people when they know they can get away with it?

>We hear a lot about Chinese cheating, from sat scores to ip theft. I've long wondered - why is cheating endemic in China whereas you don't hear the same complaints about people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore; places with large ethnic Chinese populations which should be very similar culturally to mainland China

You use to hear it all the time about people in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Singapore too. Back in the day (for Singapore that's as close as the 70s), they were seedy ports, with anything goes rules, prostitution, gambling, counterfeiting, drugs, and so on. Look for old books on those places.

Those things gradually changed as those 3 places became richer and more important for trade (and Taiwan was an early "China", getting outsourced industrial production from the West).

Note that all three places are much smaller than China, don't have 600+ strong rural population still struggling to get by/to middle class by any means, and some of them had a "Delaware/Switzerland" role in the region, with multiple interests vested in that working well (which is how the law sausage gets made to benefit corporations, the rule of law is held, and the countries get "high marks" for "economic freedom": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_economic_... ).

> why is cheating endemic in China whereas you don't hear the same complaints about people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore;

Because cheating is a cultural rather than ethnical thing.

There are ethnical Chinese people in those regions you listed, but sure mainland China sailed a totally different cultural course over the last 70 years.

In mainland china, cheating mostly happen because of over competition. If you don't cheat, others will and will crush you in business or academic competition. Cheaters go home for chicken dinner while non-cheaters goes to jail.

Isnt there a similar level of competition in all of those places?

Also I've met a lot of mainland Chinese people who recently immigrated to the us and can say that they don't seem like unscrupulous people at a significantly greater rate than the general population.

The penalties for "losing" are much lower in rich countries.

My grandfather used to say that he left the Soviet Union because he didn't want to live in a country where you have to cheat in order to have a good life.

> “And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit ... or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” Lee Kuan Yew, April 20, 1987.

Taiwan was "civilized" by 50 years of Japanese occupation that wasn't brutal or repressive as Korea. Though I think Taiwan was more of a backwater island nation when the Japanese came. Likewise for Hong Kong with Britain. Taiwan and Hong Kong sort of organically grew into and internalized the modern legal and business structures laid down by the occupiers. China is having to do what Lee Kuan Yew did, which was transform an unruly, anarchic, but otherwise sophisticated culture into one that obeys and values modern legal, rules-based norms.

How did China get its empires on and off for thousands of years of ancient history if its people are unruly and anarchic?

The same way the German "barbarians" did? Unruly doesn't imply backward; anarchic doesn't imply chaotic.

Also, China is a huge country with many cultures. Closer to Beijing the culture was historically more legalist and authoritarian. The southern coastal trading cultures were more anarchic. And I think that's still very much the same today, except because of industrialization and nationalization there's conflict where historically there was a natural symbiosis and passivity regarding the respective roles.

(Firstly, I don't accept your assumption that cheating is endemic in China, i.e. and not elsewhere. But I'm no expert at all.)

Maybe the question should be, why do you hear a lot more about it. Because China is 100 times the population of those other places? And, well, there seems a trend at least on HN lately, in stories from US papers/journals, and in the US media generally I assume (don't know, I'm not there) to favour 'China bad' stories, over 'China good' or '(Other country) bad'. It's pretty tedious, and seems to have started not long ago. It has that nauseating feeling of that regular US media obsession on the next country they'll invade/bomb. Demonization, subhumanization, whatever you want to call it.

Overly simplistic, but the cultural revolution destroyed an entire set of social norms and many of the people in power in various regions were adolescents who were at the height of their rejection of such norms due to normal human development. Unfortunately that rejection of society that seems so crucial as a teen doesn't actually play out very well in the long run.

> which should be very similar culturally to mainland China

Why though ?

Apart from looking similar they are quite different culturally from mainland China. A lot of which stems from the fact that they were former British colonies and have always taken inspiration from the West.

Massive famines, "cultural revolution", decades of civil war, genocides.. in general the demented social programs of Mao and his henchment. This was China from the 1910s to 1970s. Not to mention a century of colonization and forced concession. Chinese culture overseas was not ruptured in such a way, and preserves a lot of aspects of it from before that bloody century.

It sounds very similar to Russia. I suspect it has something to do with their communist past.

Rule of law vs rule by law

First, this is a sweeping, borderline racist, statement to state that "Chinese cheat". China is no more into IP theft or cheating than others. I think people should really be careful and refrain from "drinking the kool-aid" handed to them by some media.

Now, Taiwan and Hongkong are China. But China that continued on more traditional values. The communist regime has worked hard to change the fabric of society (like it did in e.g. Russia) and that has had negative consequences on culture and manners, and brought distrust in most institutions.

It is also down to the legal and regulatory environment. Just look for stories from Europe and the Us in the 19th century and you'll find many, many stories like you could hear from China today. And those stories from China today are what happens in many countries around the world outside of the Western 'bubble'.

You don't seem to understand, social credit is the direct outcome of "legal and regulatory environment".

What has that to do with the question or my reply?

I'm certainly no expert but isn't it only cheating by western standards? Wouldn't it be interesting to have a culture that doesn't conform to that standard and see how it fares? Imho it's like a society where everything is GPL-ed, is it really so wrong? Sure social credit etc are horrible imo but I fail to see that the copying of smart ideas without punishment is inherently wrong. It's non-capitalistic, but inherently wrong? I dont agree with that.

Sure, one (sentient individual) should never be forced to share ideas (or anything for that matter, unless one chooses to deny others that right), but to battle that with government granted monopolies... hmm, idk... I feel like we should be a bit more open-minded.

This soft bigotry against Chinese culture is really tiring already. Chinese culture and people are all over the world: America, southeast Asia, singapore, and so many other places... To think that cheating and IP theft and scams is somehow part of Chinese culture or that these are virtues unqiue to these exotic orientals and we should drop our Western preconceptions is so unbelievably condescending... And how offensive to Chinese people, both in China and overseas, who earn their achievements though their honest and diligent labor, the kind of work we value here too.

A Thai person once told me they were raising a generation of copiers, when 1 person would start a karaoke bar, the street would be filled with them soon. I also heard stories of Chinese copying entire machines for manufacturers in the west and expecting support on them. I don't understand your reply I'm saying western culture may have strange standards, Or, different at least.

I would say, IP theft and cheating is a communist thing. I was born in Soviet Union. Since the ruling class were the simple workers and not engineers there is no motivation for these to do world class things. The don’t get fame, credits and wealth. So the government must get all advanced technology by stealing. I case of Eastern Germany everything was copied from the West: stolen,reverse engineered and released as domestic product couple years later. Whole industry was 1-2 generations behind free world.

The out-of-print book East Minus West Equals Zero makes a case for exactly this.

Exactly, that's why Chinese culture in places like US, Canada, Singapore, Taiwan,HK, etc etc is generally associated with upper middle class professionalism and honorable success. It was decades communism and the associated violence and very intentional destruction of interpersonal trust that breeds a lot of what we see in mainland China today.

>I'm certainly no expert but isn't it only cheating by western standards? Wouldn't it be interesting to have a culture that doesn't conform to that standard and see how it fares?

That is a question most don't ask. They assume the laws they have and the way they go about such laws are what fits every culture -- and every people at every circumstances.

And they don't just believe that those laws would be good for those people: they also believe that they can readily and without problems adopt them too, as if it's just a matter of will.

Truth is, those laws are not some universal constants, but a result of both inheriting the Greco-Roman culture and Roman legal conceptions, and 2 millennia of iterating on them (and of course Europe itself was divided into islands of elites and peasant chaos up to the times of Hugo and Dickens, and the US of course had the "wild west" frontiers where the rule of law wasn't exactly what is today).

Maybe I'm reading "cheating" too literally but I can't imagine any scenario where I would want someone's expertise who copied other's work instead of creating the work themselves. At best I temporarily have a small lead, at worst I'll get sued or kill someone through hiring incompetence.

Cheating is ingrained into the culture. Two examples: if you visit an ancient building, it will have been rebuilt identically 7-8 times on the same spot (but still be considered the same building). When you were an apprentice craftsman in China, your goal was to make work indistinguishable from the master, at which point you would graduate and start making your own furniture/whatever it was.

IP theft is not just copying the idea, its stealing of non public documents/prototypes that helps you implement the same product without as much research.

It's important to realize that lack of public outcry/protests, or even public approval, does not necessarily mean that they support it. All my Chinese Tsinghua/Peking friends (20+) find it horrifying, yet many of them will find ways to show support for both this and other government propaganda, because they realize doing so will be beneficial for their future (even those who don't realize the government is building a profile based on everything they've ever said can still find value in sharing the propaganda because their friends, family, coworkers, teachers and bosses will see that they're "patriots").

Why should they risk their future/life fighting for something they don't believe they have the ability to change? It's like asking, why weren't the Germans resisting Hitler's government? It's easier said than done, heck, I even feel worried about posting these comments even though I don't live in China anymore and have no intention of ever going back.

Chinese [ethno]nationalism is a sick disease reminiscent of german or Japanese nationalism pre WWII. That Chinese people, of all groups, don't recognize the similarities constantly shocks me, along the same lines about how Chinese are in general very sensitive about losing face (American translation - ego trip), and that causes them to do things that gives them a bad reputation in the eyes of others - a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy.

When I compare the history of China and the history of Europe (and let's face it, North American norms derive a lot from Europe), I think there's a huge cultural divergence that can be pinpointed to one spot in history: Europe had a Magna Carta moment while China did not. I think that this is the foundational and fundamental thing that creates a lot of the differences in political and cultural norms.

I wonder when people see that the system itself is being cheated, ie children of important officials getting free bonus points or not losing their points due to 'that little crime' ... if people will lose faith in it?

Why do people think a system that is corrupt can just maintain this pristine system within one that is not?

In a regime wherein such tools are used to control and oppressed, this will clearly be another one of those tools.

> At the same time, a whopping 76 percent of survey participants said that “mutual mistrust between citizens” is a problem in Chinese society. Social credit systems are viewed as a means of bridging that trust gap.

I'd say on the contrary, when anyone could snitch on you, you'd lose your trust in society. The social credit system might have the exact opposite effect than intended.

Interesting article about a topic that Westerners generally find dystopian.

However, it didn’t make much mention about how this system can and has been abused to punish dissidents (e.g. feminists) and how citizens with low social credit can redeem themselves. From other articles about cases I’ve read the rules seem to be quite opaque and somewhat subjective to whims of the enforcers.

China is not a Western country so the concept of individual liberties and having the individual as the most important unit in society, as a concept, is pretty much foreign (literally!) to them. You will find very similar trends across Asia. Japan is an interesting case where the current constitution was written by Americans after WWII superimposed on a culture that's quite different in the first place.

This is for similar reason that you can't remove a dictator and install a democracy from scratch in its place. If the culture/mindset to support a democracy is not there, in the hearts of individuals, it won't work. Proven numerous times already in recent history.

What’s interesting is that Taiwan derives some of its routes from the same Chinese culture, yet independently came up with support for human rights and democracy. So did South Korea.

Taiwan had a strong incentive to differentiate culturally to justify that they should be an independent country.

Take Singapore which is mostly Chinese and the authoritarian model applies like in China (of course in different degrees but direction wise they are more authoritarian than most western countries).

I wonder what people who spend hundreds of hours managing their own NAS, maintaining private email servers, avoiding Google and Facebook, using VPNs etc do to protect their privacy in the face of real world surveillance. I'm imagining that they don't walk around wearing balaclavas, using dead letter drops and paying with cash.

Please don't represent us.What you doing is same as Big Brother.

Each to his own. It doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t bother them.

It also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bother me if the government I live under were to introduce a similar system.

I recently read Jordan Peterson's "12 Rules for Life" and one of the things he mentioned that really struck me, was that people who suffer from agoraphobia (fear of public places) eventually end up with the same fear (that they have when outside) inside their own homes; but since they're already home there's nowhere for them to go so they're stuck in perpetual fear.

It's also known by psychologists that a fear gets strengthened whenever an individual purposefully avoids the fear-generating situation (e.g. a public place), and it progressively gets weakened when you routinely expose yourself to the fearful situation.

So, regarding mistrust between individuals and using credit scores to try and "solve" this...

I expect that dystopic technological surveillance "solutions" such as Chinese social credit scores will actually over time weaken trust between individuals in the same way that purposefully avoiding public places increases someone's agoraphobia.

If you are a generally mistrustful person, then you're not going to start trusting people more due to social credit scores.

Trust is an act of faith, and faith is necessary when you don't actually know.

Imagine someone who is not registered for most social credit systems (perhaps because they're privacy conscious) comes to ask you for help or wants to do business with you. Is a social credit system going to make other people more trusting of that person? Of course not, it's going to make them more distrustful of that person.

Also, as someone has already mentioned, by letting people snitch on one another, credit score systems will foster even more distrust between people.

It reminds me of the Stasi in Eastern Germany, where neighbors and even spouses would report one another's activities to the secret police.

These systems foster further distrust, instead of trust.

As humans we need to overcome negative, fearful emotions like distrust by learning to judge character and to have courage and compassion, not by trying to outsource all our emotional and cognitive responsibilities to "apps".

The 20th century was full of social horrors, including China (e.g. Mao's famine in which 10s of millions of people starved to death due to forced collectivisation of farms). I get the feeling that the 21st century will have its fair share, and schemes such social credit scores will play their part in bringing them about.

In the US we have all this as well, we just are secretive about it and people don't know the rules. China is more transparent and open about it.

Both systems are dystopian big brother to some, yet utopian to many others.

Oh, not again, this narative seems to be very popular, but it's based on ignorance.

Severe whataboutism

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