Saving Face 2.0: 8 Simple Rules for Surviving China’s New Rating System

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by Tiffany Li, Commercial Counsel at General Assembly, attorney (CA/NY/NJ), and a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP/E, CIPP/US, CIPT, CIPM); and Jill Bronfman, Director of the Privacy and Technology Project at the Institute for Innovation Law. 

While China’s new surveillance policy purports to be a “credit system,” it in fact considers nearly every aspect of public and private behaviour in determining each citizen’s social score. These data points are not random, and have historical and cultural significance to the Chinese people, including the concept of “saving face,” or maintaining a good reputation. The Chinese government seems to have concluded that Chinese historical and cultural norms no longer exert the necessary societal pressures to produce a face-saving ‘harmonious society’, and so has unleashed specific regulations to reiterate acceptable behaviour for individuals.

The below list considers some of the more and less obvious rules for calculating the input values to the algorithm scheduled for full implementation in 2020, and a follow-up article will examine the consequences for Chinese citizens, and perhaps for residents of other countries who admire this model. (More background on Chinese privacy laws and why you should care – at the end of this post.)

8 Simple Rules for Surviving China’s New Rating System

1. Check twice. Using your child’s half-price ticket to enter the subway can get you demerit points. “infractors could be docked points in the city’s “personal credit information system.” A decline in Ms. Chen’s credit score, according to official pronouncements, could affect her daily life, including securing loans, jobs and her son’s school admission.

2. Call Mom. “Filial piety will count as a plus.

3. Pay your bills. Follow traffic laws and volunteer. This stuff is old school.

4. Use birth control: Having two children is now permitted, instead of just one. Three, not so much. Family planning regulations are still in force, although more lax than in previous years.

5. Mind your sharing: “Xuecun’s criticism of the government won him millions of followers on weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, until the censors swung into action. He fears the new social credit plan could bring more problems for those who dare to speak out. “My social-media account has been cancelled many times…”.

6. Shop wisely, online businesses are all in. “We will not tolerate any form of unethical or unlawful conduct.”

7. Be not a producer or consumer of fake news: Chinese censors have axed false reports about a celebrity’s death or ways to cure cancer. On the other hand, they’ve also targeted the truth, banning discussion of subjects the government would rather citizens didn’t talk about…”.

8. Understand algorithms. It’s all science fiction until it happens to you. Episode 1, Season 3 of Black Mirror posited a world in which your “score” given by others controls your access to basic necessities as well as luxuries.

Interested in learning more about Chinese privacy law? Here’s a quick primer:

What is Chinese privacy law?

Currently, China has no national privacy law, though the national Cybersecurity Law (passed late 2016) has implications for privacy. This puts China in a similar league as countries, including the United States, that have sectoral privacy laws instead of overarching omnibus laws. Sectoral privacy regimes include specific privacy laws for different industries. For example, in the U.S., HIPAA and HITECH govern the healthcare industry.  In China, laws like the Basic Norms for Electronic Medical Records (2010) and the Law on Practicing Doctors of the PRC (1988) also specifically target the healthcare industry.  In contrast, the E.U. has omnibus privacy laws, most famously including the GDPR.

Why should you care?

Not only does China not yet have a single national privacy law, Chinese privacy law in general is still at an incipient stage. There is ample room for growth, making this the perfect time for businesses and advocacy groups to attempt to influence the path of future privacy laws. China is a growing economic power, and the Asia-Pacific region will likely only become more and more influential in future privacy discussions. It is easy to envision a future where China follows the E.U. and Russia in crafting privacy laws with long-arm reach, forcing foreign corporations to comply with data localization or other privacy rules.

What does culture have to do with it?

It is important to understand the current status of Chinese privacy law in order to predict and shape its future. However, to do that, it is also important to view current and future laws through the lens of culture. Chinese privacy laws are the culmination of thousands of years of cultural and historical understandings of the concept of privacy. East Asian cultural values of privacy are vastly different from traditional Western conceptions of privacy. Understanding that distinction is the first step to understanding and influencing Chinese privacy law. It also happens to be the subject of a forthcoming article – stay tuned!

This feature is part of a Digital Asia Hub Data Protection Day specialFor permission to republish or for interviews with the author please contact Dev Lewis.