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China Tests A 'Social Credit Score'


China is testing a new plan. Its stated aim is to make it easier for citizens to do business and help them to trust each other more. It's similar to the American credit score, but much more sweeping. It tracks far more than financial transactions and is called the Social Credit score. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from The Indicator podcast explain.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Many people in China don't have bank accounts, don't really have much of a credit history.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: So China has never created something quite like the American credit score.

RACHEL BOTSMAN: And so there is, for lack of a better word, a trust deficit in China that is impacting economic activity.

VANEK SMITH: Rachel Botsman teaches trust and technology and is the author of "Who Can You Trust." She says a lack of trust in people and businesses has held China's economy back.

GARCIA: So when China decided to make a centralized score, the government turned to people's behaviors to extrapolate trustworthiness from them.

VANEK SMITH: And you know who has lots of data on how people behave? Companies, especially big companies like Alibaba. That is China's version of Amazon. Alibaba owns one of the largest online payment systems in the country and has its own credit scoring system called Sesame Credit. So the government has been working with Alibaba in the development of people's Social Credit score.

GARCIA: The way people are scored, it's not simply whether they miss a bill. It could be what they buy online. I mean, I think the example that the head of Sesame Credit publicly gave the press was, you know, if you buy nappies, you're responsible. So your score will go up. But if you're buying video games, you're lazy, so your school will go down.

VANEK SMITH: But the Social Credit score will not be all about what you buy. The government is also collecting data of its own, and that data will factor into people's Social Credit scores, too.

GARCIA: The Social Credit system is not scheduled to be rolled out nationally until 2020, but we got a glimpse into how it might work because China is testing out versions of it in pilot cities across the country. We talked to a 32-year-old IT engineer named Xu Ranjan. He lives in Rongcheng, which is one of those pilot cities.

VANEK SMITH: And Xu Ranjan explained that everyone in the city starts with a score of 1,000.

XU RANJAN: (Through interpreter) My score is full score. So it's 1,000.

GARCIA: And there's a whole letter grade system behind the points. So from 960 to 1,000-plus points is an A, 850 to 955 points is a B.

VANEK SMITH: Eight-forty-nine to 600 is a C. And this is considered a warning level. Below that, you are a D. You're labeled an untrustworthy citizen. You can gain or lose points for all kinds of reasons. Get a DUI? That is an automatic downgrade to a B.

GARCIA: And if you spread rumors online - minus 50 points.

VANEK SMITH: If you have a really high score, you get discounts at a bunch of local businesses. Your heating bill can go down. You also get special invitations to community events.

GARCIA: Xu Ranjan says it's made people behave better. Before the pilot program, being a pedestrian in Rongcheng was just terrifying. You basically had to hurl yourself across the street when you saw a break in traffic.

XU: (Through interpreter) But now, after the changes have happened, the cars, they will wait for you.

VANEK SMITH: Now, remember, Xu Ranjan is an example of somebody with a perfect score. If your Social Credit score is low, or if you end up on something called the list of untrustworthy people, you can be banned from certain kinds of travel or even subjected to public shaming. Life gets hard.

Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOMOTI'S "RESTLESS MINDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.