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China’s Social Credit System: How Robust is the Human Rights Critique?

Simon Burgess (University of New England, Australia)
Matthew Wysel (University of New England, Australia)

Who's Watching? Surveillance, Big Data and Applied Ethics in the Digital Age

ISBN: 978-1-80382-468-0, eISBN: 978-1-80382-467-3

Publication date: 12 July 2022


China’s social credit system features a central database, the assignment of social credit scores for individuals and businesses, and the meting out of rewards and punishments, including a form of public shaming. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to develop the system in an effort to promote virtue and trustworthiness. While the idea that a government can ‘legislate morality’ is often scorned, it is not one that we dispute. Our focus is on how the social credit system promotes virtue, how the CCP’s thinking compares with that of certain relevant philosophers, and whether the system is in violation of human rights. As we readily acknowledge, there is a sense in which practically all of us face an informal kind of social credit system; as individuals in society, we expect to be subject to a kind of feedback loop in which good behaviour is rewarded and poor behaviour is punished. Yet China’s social credit system is a remarkably centralised kind of effort, and it enables the CCP to play an extraordinarily dominant role in both controlling and contributing to the feedback loop that people and businesses in China face. In harmony with a chorus of human rights groups, we argue that China’s social credit system is indeed in serious danger of violating certain human rights, particularly certain rights relating to freedom of opinion and expression. Moreover, we contend that this human rights critique of the system is reasonably robust because the kind of human rights involved are liberty rights as opposed to rights to goods and services. As we explain, liberty rights tend not to impose a material burden on others, which helps to give them an especially strong claim for recognition as human rights.



Burgess, S. and Wysel, M. (2022), "China’s Social Credit System: How Robust is the Human Rights Critique?", Walsh, A. and Boucher, S. (Ed.) Who's Watching? Surveillance, Big Data and Applied Ethics in the Digital Age (Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Vol. 26), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 39-56.



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