Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Liberal Democratic Engagement With Chinese Social Credit: Liav Orgad & Wessel Reijers, "How to Make the Perfect Citizen? Lessons from China's Social Credit System," Vanderbilt Journal Transnational Law 54(5) (2021)


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All societies strive to make the perfect citizen.  It is just that the effort usually acquires specific cultural and national characteristics.  Its in the difference in those cultural and national characteristics that much of what passes for current discussion of the management of social behaviors occurs.  Those discussions, in turn, seek to naturalize the techniques and objectives of indigenous technologies of perfecting individuals. 

In the liberal democratic states there appears at first to be a dissonance between ideologies of personal autonomy and human dignity and this drive toward the perfection  of the individual. But that has always been easily solved from the pre-Modern period onward.  All it takes is the functional differentiation first between the secular and religious spheres (with the delegation of human perfection left to religious authorities), and then after the marginalization of religion as the superior moral force  in liberal democratic orders, by substituting the more general "secular" and "private" sphere (and with it the delegation of human perfection to the marketplace, for example, of ideas) for the purely religious.  In this way the public authority can continue to embrace the conceit of separation, even as it might choose to either be led or lead the private sector or nudge its markets toward whatever state of perfection suits those with an interest in the project. 

Chinese Marxist Leninist systems are far more direct, and less fussy about these distinctions made necessary by the socio-political foundations of liberal democratic markets driven systems.  For them it is an essential responsibility of the political vanguard to draw from the core normative theory of political-economic model a set of societal norms around which they can guide the masses toward perfection.   The Leninist vanguard is burdened with a duty bopth to perfect the state and its economic and the masses and their culture.  Aligned but are necessary factors in the move toward the establishment of the Communist society.  Eventually. 

These realities have amused legal scholars, sociologists and political scientists for a few generations.  Technology has now transformed both the scope and the potential for such projects of transformation.  And that has (finally) captured the public imagination (or rather it has captured the imaginations of those who select issues designated as important for wider discussion among national social forces). Whatever its sociology or politics, the issue of technology based, quantitative, data driven projects of perfection have now captured the imagination and have as well become important elements of governance in both Marxist Leninist and liberal democratic states. And liberal democratic interest in the quite different approach of Marxist Leninist states has grown as a consequence both because it appears incompatible with and perhaps threatening to the liberal democratic project.

It is in that context that Liav Orgad & Wessel Reijers recently published article "How to Make the Perfect Citizen? Lessons from China's Social Credit System," Vanderbilt Journal Transnational Law 54(5):1087-1121 (2021) is well worth reading. Orgad and Wessel argue (from their abstract):

“How to make the perfect citizen?” This has been one of the questions driving the construction of the Chinese Social Credit System: a technology-driven project that aims to assess, evaluate, and steer the behavior of Chinese citizens. After presenting social credit systems in China’s public and private sectors (Part II), the Article provides normative standards to distinguish the Chinese system from comparable systems in liberal democracies (Part III). It then discusses the concept of civic virtue, as implemented by the Social Credit System, claiming that it creates a new form of governance, “cybernetic citizenship,” which fundamentally changes the essence of citizenship and the political role of the state (Part IV). On the whole, the Article demonstrates how the Chinese Social Credit System redefines the institution of citizenship and warns against similar patterns that are mushrooming in liberal democracies.

For those who want to know about these emerging technologies of governance and their ambitions the article is a valuation contribution to the discussion. In the final analysis, though, it may be useful to keep in mind that a society reveals itself best by its indulgence and application of its technologies.That makes the article more interesting still.

The Introductiion follows:



Imagine a world where your daily activities are constantly watched and recorded: what you buy, whether you volunteer in the community, how often you visit your parents, who your close friends are, where you travel, and when you pay your bills. The aggregated data are collected from dozens of public and private agencies and then processed and assessed by a central bureau for developing a ranking for you and your fellow citizens. A high ranking is rewarded while a low ranking may be sanctioned. The ranking is publicly known, so that people can check it before they contact you, date you, or do business with you. And although you are aware that you are constantly being rated, the data sources, criteria used, and ranking methods are largely unknown.

In 2014, the Communist Party of China introduced a plan to construct a “Social Credit System” (社会信用体系).1 It intends to use technological innovation to establish a unified system that rates citizens for improving social order and public trust. Although one cannot speak yet of a Social Credit System, China aims to create a comprehensive ecosystem by the end of 2021, where all citizens2 are

1. Notice Concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020), STATE COUNCIL OF THE PEOPLES REPUBLIC OF CHINA (June 14, 2014), [] (archived Sept. 10, 2021) [hereinafter State Council Notice].

2. The article focuses on individual citizens, although social credit systems in China also target noncitizens, companies, organizations, and government entities. The term ‘citizen’ is used not in the formal sense of legal status (e.g., citizens living abroad


rated based on a national credit database. The system should cover most, if not all, aspects of civic life: commerce, finance, taxation, employment, education, transportation, housing, scientific research, and even sports—almost everything that a person leaves a footprint of, physical or digital. It promises to reward “model individuals keeping trust” and impose sanctions for a breach of trust by “blacklist systems and market withdrawal mechanisms.”3 In order to keep trust, a person should obey the law and follow “professional ethics and behavioral norms.” The overall idea is to forge public policy in which “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.”4

The Chinese project has become infamous and has been portrayed by Western media as the world’s first “digital dictatorship,” a “form of high-tech Stalinism,” and a means of Orwellian control.5 Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had declared that “China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life—the so-called ‘Social Credit Score.’”6 Western reports on the Social Credit System present the ultimate dystopian nightmare, a world in which individuals live in “Bentham’s panopticon.”7 There is a sense of anxiety of a future regime ruled by a

are not part of the system) but, instead, as membership in a political community and being subjected to its jurisdiction.

  1. State Council Notice, supra note 1, at para. V(1).

  2. See State Council Notice, supra note 1, at para. I(3).

  3. See, e.g., Nicholas Kristof, China’s Orwellian War on Religion, N.Y. TIMES,

May 22, 2019, at A33; Jamie. Horsley, China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real, FOREIGN POLICY (Nov. 16, 2018, 6:46 AM) orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Adrian Shahbaz, The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, FREEDOM HOUSE (Oct. 31, 2018) ism [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Matthew Carney, Leave No Dark Corner, ABC NEWS (July 30, 2020, 11:18 PM) news/2018-09-18/china-social-credit-a-model-citizen-in-a-digital-dictatorship/10200278? nw=0 [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Nicholas Wright, How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape the Global Order, FOREIGN AFFAIRS (July 10, 2018) will-reshape-global-order [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Robert F. Hunwick, How Do You Control 1.4 Billion People?, NEW REPUBLIC (April 25, 2018) [ H3E3-62ZS] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Big Data and Government: China’s Digital Dictatorship, ECONOMIST (Dec. 17, 2016) 2016/12/17/chinas-digital-dictatorship [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021); Big Data, Meet Big Brother: China Invents the Digital Totalitarian State, ECONOMIST, (Dec. 17, 2016) invents-the-digital-totalitarian-state [] (archived Sept. 17, 2021).

6. Mike Pence, Vice President of the U.S., Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Toward China at The Hudson Institute (Oct. 4, 2018) (transcript available in The Trump White House Archives).

7. Bentham’s Panopticon is a prison in which inmates are under constant surveillance at any given time; this system of control is achieved through the architectural design of the prison. Michel Foucault used it as a metaphor for the modern


“Metric Society,” a “Black Box Society” and “Surveillance Capitalism.”8 In this background, the Social Credit System is a Pandora’s box where everyone expresses their fears. Science fiction series, such as Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” episode (2016), accelerate the fears of a society where people become a commodity in the “marketplace of scores.”9 But even though the Social Credit System is a Chinese project, it also reflects a concern in liberal democracies; it is a striking reminder of how the world is rapidly changing.10

The Article analyzes social credit systems from the perspective of citizenship in liberal democracies. Thus far, scholarly discussions have largely ignored the impact of emerging technologies on the institution of citizenship. This neglect is remarkable given the increasing speed at which emerging technologies are entangled in the development of new forms of citizenship governance. To a large extent, the intellectual grounds of existing citizenship regimes had been developed long before the rise of automated systems and, therefore, have not engaged with what can be termed “cybernetic citizenship.” Against this backdrop, the Article presents a comparison of how new technologies redefine the essence of citizenship in both China and liberal democracies. China’s Social Credit System is a unique case as it represents one of the most ambitious attempts in history to use sociotechnical means to produce “perfect citizens.” It demonstrates not only how new technologies transform citizenship values and institutions but also indicates future directions of governance. These implement fundamentally different conceptions of freedom and undermine one of the most significant achievements of the Enlightenment—the Kantian-rooted idea that human beings should be treated as an end in themselves, and not merely as a means to achieve public goods.

The Article proceeds as follows. Part II is empirical: it describes social credit systems in China at different levels—national, local,

surveillance society. See generally MICHEL FOUCAULT, DISCIPLINE & PUNISH: THE BIRTH OF THE PRISON (Vintage Books, 1977).


9. Black Mirror: Nosedive (Netflix television episode released Oct. 21, 2016). Nosedive portrays a world in which citizens rate one another on a 0–5 scale by using a mobile application without government regulation. A high score leads to a wide set of social and financial rewards, while a low score ends up with various social and financial sanctions.

10. Xin Dai, Enforcing Law and Norms for Good Citizens: One View of China’s Social Credit System Project, 63 DEV. 38, 3843 (2020) (quoting SHOSHANA ZUBOFF, THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: THE FIGHT FOR A HUMAN FUTURE AT THE NEW FRONTIER OF POWER (Public Affairs, 2019)) (The scary picture [of the Social Credit System]... reflects often not much on China’s reality but more on the Westerners’ acute sense of anxiety about their own fate in the data society.”).


private—and identifies their data sources, criteria used, rating methods, and sanctions and rewards attached to them. Part III is comparative: it analyzes similarities and differences between social credit systems in China and scoring and rating systems in liberal societies. It suggests three points of divergence: scope (is the system all-encompassing or limited in terms of topics and applications to one field?), authority (is the system centralised or decentralised, private or public?), and regime type (is the system part of a democratic regime?). Part IV is normative: it argues that China’s Social Credit Systems can be seen as a form of cybernetic citizenship governance that changes the essence of citizenship and the political role of the state. It examines this development from the perspective of political philosophy, discussing how social credit systems impact the concept of civic virtue. Overall, the Article invites the readers to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities brought about by rapidly developing systems of sociotechnical citizenship governance. This topic is likely to be on the agenda in the years to come, particularly in a post-COVID-19 world in which citizens may tolerate more surveillance means, including sensing technologies and self-tracking apps to monitor their lives.


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