Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
The Chinese government plans to establish a national social credit system by 2020. Once established, the system will use big data from a wide range of sources to assign each citizen a “trustworthiness rating.” Following decades of rapid economic growth and marketization, the government presents the social credit system as a way of fostering certainty and transparency. This paper draws on ethnographic research and media analysis to explore this emerging technopolitics in light of historical concerns with personal quality (suzhi) in China. Shifting focus from the so-called one-child policy and its concern with the quality of the population in the 1980s to policies promoting self-cultivation and personal quality in the1990s, the Chinese government continuously employed value coding as a mode of political intervention and control. By situating personal value within rigid and interconnected system of normative binaries, such as being civilized or uncivilized, urban or rural, modern or backward, the Chinese government has tied socio-economic mobility to demands for self-improvement. As bearers and nurturers of “persons of quality,” mothers have been the primary focus of this politics. In what ways, this paper asks, do algorithmically generated social credit scores reconfigure such governmental concerns with quality? Does social credit assessing “integrity” and “trustworthiness” apply a computational logic to personal quality? And, how might such datafication change the politics of class and gender in contemporary China? Critically assessing digital promises of a fairer and more transparent society, this paper explores a Chinese technopolitics on the intersection of modernization histories and algorithmic futures.