‘If you’re a soldier in China, applying to leave the army is likely to leave a black mark on your social credit score.’ This was the striking opening line of a Sixth Tone article from April 2018 reposted on the Chinese military’s official website. The article was about the use of a social credit system by the People’s Liberation Army. However, it garnered surprisingly little attention for such a hot topic.
Excellent research has already been done on the various prototype social credit systems in China, but a big gap in that research is the question of how a social credit system might be applied to the PLA, particularly at a time when President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are increasingly concerned about the military’s loyalty to the party.
The 2015 Chinese defence white paper stated that the PLA is enjoying a period of strategic opportunity and can therefore modernise through ongoing reforms. However, China has faced growing domestic and international criticism and pushback in recent months. The CCP is trying to put out fires on multiple fronts: continued freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea; a slowing economy; crises in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan; and the coronavirus outbreak.
The PLA is being pushed to be combat-ready as soon as possible, but military reforms haven’t been welcomed across the board. Changes in promotion structures, preferences for highly skilled labour and a new focus on high-tech joint operations have challenged the ways in which the PLA has operated for decades. However, the party’s longstanding battle to ensure that its army is loyal to it is an increasing priority under Xi, and the CCP continues to emphasise that the party controls the gun: 党指挥枪 (dang zhihui qiang). Under Xi, disloyalty to the party has been made illegal in order to protect the CCP’s power.
In the light of that threat perception, the PLA version of a social credit system seems to be a new tool for punishing betrayal, dissuading dissent and rewarding allegiance to the military.
The Sixth Tone article reports that 17 military personnel were ‘blacklisted’ in China’s social credit system in Jilin City and restricted from travelling by air and rail and from seeking civil service employment. Their names and addresses were posted in Chinese news articles and on the WeChat account of the Jilin City military recruitment office. They apparently ‘lacked the willpower to adapt to military life’. According to the article, they were prohibited from taking out loans and insurance policies and banned from enrolling in educational institutions for two years.
Similar examples have been reported in other provinces, where one-off punishments such as fines have been accompanied by permanent ones. For instance, two men in Fujian Province were punished by having their registration documents permanently marked with a note that read, ‘refused military service’.
More recently, in March 2019, Weihai City prefecture in Shandong published its own ‘Implementation Plan for the Evaluation of Personal Credit Scores in the Field of National Defense Mobilization’, which outlined how a social credit record could be used as both a carrot and a stick in domestic military matters. Punishments were listed for those deemed to be acting against national defence interests.
China’s 2019 defence white paper and other government documents state that ‘China’s national defense is the responsibility of all Chinese people’, so punishments for disloyalty aren’t directed solely at soldiers but also at civilians.
Until Xi’s reforms, the PLA was left to set and manage its own institutional priorities, but now it has to address corruption and tackle vested interests to take the military modernisation program forward. It seems that the application of a social credit system in the military is a potential additional measure to enforce strict compliance with new military guidelines.
The social credit system, which both co-opts and coerces, might also be used as a recruitment tool as the PLA competes against China’s private sector for highly skilled graduates. Weihai City’s system not only rewards those who join or extend their service in the military with bonus social credit points for them and their families, but also punishes those who do not.
Weihai’s military-related social credit system is integrated into the city’s ‘credit joint disciplinary mechanism’. Those who contribute positively or negatively to national defence have points added to or deducted from their personal records. Credit records are reportedly correlated with overall credit ratings, from AAA (integrity model) to D (dishonest). The repercussions of dissent extend beyond the soldier to his or her immediate family members. The naming and shaming is also becoming ever more public: transgressions are announced not just on government websites (such as the local military recruitment offices and the prefecture’s Credit China website), but also on social media accounts.
The link between Weihai’s social credit score and national defence suggests that the PLA is also more concerned about its ability to mobilise the military in a national crisis than previously thought. If Xi’s anticorruption campaign was also a tool to address the CCP’s control over the military, then the targeting of those in PLA logistics roles further suggests a concern in the military’s leadership about the force’s ability to mobilise when needed.
Just as a civilian social credit system might be used by the party-state to incentivise or force individuals, companies and other entities to ‘act in line with policies, directions and will of the CCP’, the military equivalent could be used to similar effect in the PLA.
It’s important to note that the PLA’s experience with social credit is based on isolated pilot projects and not a complete institution-wide program. However, the published examples indicate that those projects might be a strong indicator of a future system by which the PLA’s leadership ensures that the PLA remains the party’s army.
Alex Joske is a researcher at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre and Charlie Lyons Jones is a researcher with ASPI’s defence, strategy and national security program.
This article by Meia Nouwens first appeared in the Australian Strategic Policy Insitute’s The Strategist in 2020. Image: Reuters