17 July 2019
Those who end up on the state's "non-credit-worthy list" would be deprived of their most basic rights as citizens such as traveling by air or commuting by train. Photo: AFP
Those who end up on the state's "non-credit-worthy list" would be deprived of their most basic rights as citizens such as traveling by air or commuting by train. Photo: AFP

How China uses ‘social credit history’ to control its citizens

Back in the days prior to the economic reforms, people across mainland China had to rely on the state for basically all of their needs, such as wages, food, and clothing, not to mention that everybody was tightly regulated by the residency registration system.

But as people get wealthier and find more career opportunities as a result of the economic reforms, many mainlanders have started trying to break free from state control and pursue freedom of thought and movement.

However, Big Brother just won’t allow that to happen. The state has once again begun to tighten its grip on the people and bring them into line with the help of state-of-the-art technologies.

One striking example of how mainland officialdom is tightening its control over people’s lives with cutting-edge technologies is the establishment of the “non-credit-worthy list”.

Those who end up on the list would be deprived of their most basic rights as citizens such as traveling by air or commuting by train.

As of May this year, hundreds of millions of mainlanders have already been banned from buying airline or high-speed rail tickets due to their poor “social credit history”.

On June 12, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced in a press conference that 86 “non-credit-worthy” citizens have been put on a no-fly list, which effectively bans them from flying with any airline for one year.

According to CAAC announcement, these people are banned from flying because of the following reasons: concealing or carrying dangerous, illegal or controlled items when flying; using falsified or somebody else’s ID or boarding pass; disrupting public order on board an aircraft; blocking or storming security checkpoints at the airport or assaulting other people; and smoking aboard a flight.

At first glance, it sounds fair enough for the authorities to bar people who have committed these wrongful behaviors from flying.

But as the saying goes, “the devil is in the detail”. If we take a closer look, we will realize that the definition of “dangerous, illegal or controlled items” can be very broad and general.

For example, banned items can include any printed publication or audiovisual product that is deemed “hostile or derogatory towards the Communist Party of China or the government of the People’s Republic of China” or a “potential threat to social order and stability”.

According to the customs notice released by the Beijing Capital International Airport, all printed materials, photographic films, pictures, CDs and videos that are considered “harmful to the state of politics, economy, culture and social morality” of China are banned from entering Chinese territory.

In other words, in order not to get into trouble, travellers will have to self-censor whatever item they are carrying in their luggage.

In 2014, the State Council declared that it is going to build a nationwide “social credit history” system by 2020.

Under the system, the authorities would rate the “social credit history” of every citizen based on their everyday behavior, personal financial records, and the content of their social media posts, and then grade them accordingly.

In 2015, the People’s Bank of China issued licenses to eight private mainland enterprises authorizing them to develop social credit history system hardware and software as a part of a nationwide pilot scheme.

Among the enterprises who were issued with the license was Alibaba’s Zhima Credit.

The outside world had been under the false impression that Beijing was just developing the same kind of personal credit rating mechanism adopted by western financial institutions.

But as it turns out, China is actually developing a mass surveillance network that is intended to control and monitor its citizens.

And being blacklisted under this network would not only mean that you could be banned from flying or taking trains, but would also affect virtually every aspect of your everyday life.

According to a recent report by the Canadian newspaper The Globe And Mail, a seasoned media worker in the mainland named Liu Hu, who has been blowing the whistle on high-level government corruption on his social media account over the years, suddenly found in 2017 that he had been blacklisted by the national social credit history system without any prior notice.

As a result, he is banned from purchasing airline tickets, buying properties, and even applying for bank loans.

As we can expect, there are likely to be many more Liu Hus in the days ahead.

What is truly terrifying about the “social credit history” system is that it can easily frighten people into submission without the authorities actually having to intimidate them.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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