China began to detail its ambitions for the social credit system six years ago, saying it could be a reality by 2020. While some critics saw it as a form of total social control, it was primarily envisioned as a tool for a country where people often break the law in big and little ways without consequences. The Chinese authorities typically exert social control through the police, who are setting up separate, more draconian systems that include biometric data, like face scans and DNA records.
In any case, social credit has proved difficult to use on individuals. China’s central bank canceled plans to include data from the popular electronic payment systems run by Alibaba and Tencent, two Chinese internet giants. Pilot programs have been started in only a few places.
Even there, the programs have had little impact. During a visit to Rongcheng, a social credit pilot city in eastern China, officials said that a good score would get you a speedier check-in at the hospital and easier access to loans. But hospital workers and teachers said social credit had not affected how they do their jobs. Many residents said they were unaware it existed.
“I might have heard about it somewhere but I think it’s none of my business and not relevant to our lives in the village,” said Liang Xiaoli, a store owner. Besides, she added, “I don’t really care. I mean, why should I?”
Residents were rewarded based on factors like whether they helped to keep the city clean. Officials with clipboards collected data and handed out self-assessment forms. They posted photos of citizens with top scores on bulletin boards. In many cases the standouts were related to local Communist Party leaders. Liang Huaying, a Rongcheng official, said they got points because they most often showed up at official events.
The system has proved more adaptable to ensuring good conduct for business.
The social credit system brings together various blacklists long run by different ministries and local governments, allowing the authorities to broadly and consistently punish wrongdoers. But while China is assembling a nationwide social credit system, it still has dozens of city-level systems that use different scoring methods.
Ms. Fei, the daughter of the silk factory owner, found out she was in the system during a work trip in late 2017, when she could not buy a train ticket home. Then her bank accounts were frozen. She was eventually fired from her job as a financial analyst.