The Current

How China's 'social credit' system blocked millions of people from travelling

Since 2014, the Chinese government has been experimenting with a system that rewards — and punishes — people for their public behaviour through so-called "social credit" points. We hear from experts worried about government control, and people who say those fears are overblown.

People can also earn themselves off the blacklist, legal expert says

Passengers wait in lines to board their train at a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province Jan. 6, 2012. Last year millions of ticket sales were blocked because the buyers had low scores under China's 'social credit' system. (REUTERS)

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Millions of people were blocked from buying airline tickets or booking train journeys in China last year after being blacklisted under the country's controversial "social credit" system.

The National Public Credit Information Center revealed in its annual report that people with low scores had been blocked from buying airline tickets 17.5 million times in 2018, according to the Associated Press.

People were barred from buying train tickets 5.5 million times, and 128 people were blocked from leaving the country due to unpaid taxes, the report said. Additionally, there were 290,000 instances where a person's low score stopped them from getting a senior management job or acting as a company's legal representative.

"If you're on one of these blacklists, you are barred from buying luxury goods on some of China's online shopping platforms, you can't buy a plane ticket, you can't get a mortgage," said Nathan Vanderklippe, the Globe and Mail's Asia correspondent.

A report from the National Public Credit Information Center revealed that 128 people were blocked from leaving the country in 2018, due to unpaid taxes. (Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press)

"In some places, if you are on this blacklist, there's been experiments where the government will automatically change your cellphone ringtone," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"So if your friends call you, instead of hearing a phone ringing, they get a message saying this person's on the blacklist, as a method of public shaming."

Originally conceived in the 1990s, the Chinese government has been experimenting with the current form of the social credit system since 2014. Citizens have points deducted from their score for breaking the law or more minor offences like walking a dog without a leash. Currently, the system is only in effect in certain areas, run by local officials. But the Chinese government wants to have it implemented across the whole country by 2020.

While a low score can limit your chances of getting a government job, Vanderklippe pointed out that under the system, citizens also receive rewards for good behaviour.

"You can earn points for example by volunteering, perhaps by donating blood, by doing things that are considered pro-social," he said.

That could result in financial advantages like lower heating bills, or perks and bonuses when booking hotels, he said.

Critics of system say it's an invasive form of government repression and surveillance. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Social credit scores have 'been very effective'

Human Rights Watch has called the system an attempt by Chinese authorities to "create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people's rights," but one legal expert says those fears are overblown.

"I understand why people worry about this because it does seem like a big overreach, collecting these massive amounts of data," said Jamie Horsley, senior fellow and lecturer at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center.

"It clearly could be abused. I mean, we all worry about the privacy issues," she told Tremonti.

"But this system doesn't just sweep in all kinds of information. It has to be that there has been a fine imposed, or a court judgment, and information about that specific act gets put in the system."

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She pointed out that the system has encouraged people to obey the law, and pay fines promptly when there are infractions.

"It's ... been very effective, and one thing that never seems to be reported is that people are getting off the blacklist as well as being put on them," she said.

"So something seems to be working." 

System may never be fully implemented, says academic

While the west may view the social credit system "as a form of state repression tool," Lynette Ong argued that view isn't shared everywhere in China.

"From the Chinese perspective … they see this as a form of social management," said Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

In China, which has a population of almost 1.4 billion, there is "very low trust among strangers, much lower than in our society," she told Tremonti.

[It's] a way to collect data and build a database, for people to be discerning of who is actually trustworthy.- Lynette Ong 

"I think they see [the] social credit system as a way to collect data and build a database, for people to be discerning of who is actually trustworthy," she said.

However, Ong suggested that the system may be impossible to implement across a country as vast as China.

"With slowing growth in China, this needs a lot of resources to fully implement this. And where is the money coming from? I think people are going to question whether it is OK to spend so much money in social credit."

Click 'listen' near the top of the page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey.