What's Your 'Public Credit Score'? The Shanghai Government Can Tell You

Jan 3, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2017 10:44 am

The Shanghai city government thinks it can make citizens more honest through a smartphone app. The city released the app, Honest Shanghai, in November during "honesty week," a celebration of virtuous behavior throughout the city.

Here's how the app works: You sign up using your national ID number. The app uses facial recognition software to locate troves of your personal data collected by the government, and 24 hours later, you're given one of three "public credit" scores — very good, good, or bad.

"We want to make Shanghai a global city of excellence," says Shao Zhiqing, deputy director of Shanghai's Commission of Economy and Informatization, which oversees the Honest Shanghai app. "Through this app, we hope our residents learn they'll be rewarded if they're honest. That will lead to a positive energy in society."

Shao says Honest Shanghai draws on up to 3,000 items of information collected from nearly 100 government entities to determine an individual's public credit score.

A good score allows users to collect rewards like discounted airline tickets, and a bad score could one day lead to problems getting loans and getting seats on planes and trains.

Shao says Honest Shanghai will someday search beyond government records for other personal data.

"The government is not omnipotent," says Shao from his office. "In order to give a well-rounded rating for each resident, we'll need to tap the market for data. We'll look to industry associations, private companies, and social media."

Honest Shanghai is one of three-dozen social credit systems run by local governments throughout China. They're part of a goal by China's central government to construct a nationwide social credit system by 2020.

But skeptics wonder how far this will go before Honest Shanghai becomes Paranoid Shanghai?

"The government asks people to be honest, but it excludes itself from such scrutiny," says Zhu Dake, a Humanities professor at Tongji University in Shanghai.

"The government should be watched as well, but who's watching them?" he adds. "Should we develop another app that allows the people to monitor them? If we did, they'd accuse us of breaking the law."

Zhu says unilateral grading from a nationwide social credit system could lead to what he calls "credit totalitarianism."

"You're wrong if I say so," says Zhu. "You have bad credit if I say so. Where will this lead? They could easily expand the criteria and start judging people on moral or ideological grounds. They're using modern technology to create a vision of Orwell's 1984."

City official Shao Zhiqing rejects this line of thinking. He points out that the app, at this stage, is completely voluntary.

Additionally, he says, "The government isn't rating people. It's done by a third party. We share government data and they decide what it means."

Shao added that Shanghai wasn't paying the third party in assisting with the app.

The third party is software company Zhengxin Fangsheng. A representative named Wu said his company wouldn't have worked on the Honest Shanghai app unless the government asked it to, so yes, Wu said, the government has every intention to rate its residents' public credit.

Wu added that although the government hasn't paid his company yet, Zhengxin Fangsheng outbid other software companies to work on the app.

On Shangai's streets, nobody seemed to have heard of the Honest Shanghai app. But those interviewed seemed to like the idea.

"It sounds like it will help improve the quality of citizens in the long run," says saleswoman Joyce Hu, 30. "As long as it doesn't violate my privacy, I'm OK with it."

Down the road, Xuan Zixi, 24, had some questions about Shanghai's government prying into his personal information.

"Is it like what the American government does? Where they monitor what their citizens are doing all the time? It's like that, right?" he asked.

As long as it's the Chinese government and not the NSA prying into his personal life, says Xuan, he trusts everything will be fine.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Residents of Shanghai are trying to keep their city honest with the help of big brother. There's a new app that uses troves of data the government has collected on citizens and businesses, and they use it to rate how trustworthy they are. This comes as China is preparing to roll out a nationwide social credit system that's raised all kinds of concerns about privacy. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The Honest Shanghai app was announced over state-run television in November. It appeared during honesty week, a week-long celebration of virtuous behavior organized by Shanghai's government.

Here's how the app works. You sign up using your national ID number. The app uses facial recognition software to locate troves of your personal data collected by the government, and 24 hours later, you're given one of three public credit scores - very good, good or bad.

SHAO ZHIQING: (Through interpreter) We want to make Shanghai a global city of excellence.

SCHMITZ: Shao Zhiqing is deputy director of Shanghai's Commission of Economy and Informatization, which oversees the Honest Shanghai app.

SHAO: (Through interpreter) Through this app, we hope our residents learn they'll be rewarded if they're honest. That will lead to a positive energy in society.

SCHMITZ: Shao says Honest Shanghai draws on 2,000 to 3,000 items of information collected from nearly 100 government entities to determine an individual's public credit score. A good score allows users to collect rewards, like discounted airline tickets. A bad score could lead to problems getting loans and getting seats on planes and trains. Shao says Honest Shanghai will someday search beyond government records for other personal data.

SHAO: (Through interpreter) The government is not omnipotent. In order to give a well-rounded rating for each resident, we'll need to tap the market for data. We'll look to industry associations, private companies and social media.

SCHMITZ: Honest Shanghai is one of three dozen social credit systems run by local governments throughout China. They're part of a goal by China's central government to construct a nationwide social credit system by 2020. But skeptics wonder how far this will go before Honest Shanghai becomes paranoid Shanghai.

ZHU DAKE: (Through interpreter) The government asks people to be honest, but it excludes itself from such scrutiny.

SCHMITZ: Zhu Dake is a humanities professor at Tongji University in Shanghai.

ZHU: (Through interpreter) The government should be watched as well, but who's watching them? Should we develop another app that allows us to monitor them? If we did, they'd accuse us of breaking the law.

SCHMITZ: Zhu says the unilateral grading from a nationwide social credit system could lead to what he calls credit totalitarianism.

ZHU: (Through interpreter) You're wrong if I say so. You have bad credit if I say so. Where will this lead? They could easily expand the criteria and start judging people on moral or ideological grounds. They're using modern technology to create a vision of Orwell's 1984.

SCHMITZ: I asked Shanghai city official Shao about this. He pointed out that the app at this stage is completely voluntary. Plus...

SHAO: (Through interpreter) The government isn't rating people. It's done by a third party. We share government data and they decide what it means.

SCHMITZ: That third party is a software company named Zhengxin Fangsheng. A representative named Wu said his company wouldn't have worked on the Honest Shanghai app unless the government asked it to. So yes, Wu said, the government has every intention to rate its residents public credit. On Shanghai's streets, nobody I spoke to had heard of the Honest Shanghai app, but everyone seemed to like the idea. Here's saleswoman Joyce Hu.

JOYCE HU: (Through interpreter) It sounds like it will help improve the quality of citizens in the long run. As long as it doesn't violate my privacy, I'm OK with it.

SCHMITZ: Down the road, 24-year-old Xuan Zixi had some questions about Shanghai's government prying into his personal information.

XUAN ZIXI: (Through interpreter) Is it like what the American government does where they monitor what the citizens are doing all the time? It's like that, right?

SCHMITZ: As long as it's the Chinese government and not the NSA prying into his personal life, says Xuan, he trusts everything will be OK. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROKI MIZUKAMI SONG, "HUMAN RACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.