Chinese authorities claim they have banned more than 7 million people deemed “untrustworthy” from boarding flights, and nearly 3 million others from riding on high-speed trains, according to a report by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission.
The announcements offer a glimpse into Beijing’s ambitious attempt to create a Social Credit System (SCS) by 2020 — that is, a proposed national system designed to value and engineer better individual behaviour by establishing the scores of 1.4 billion citizens and “awarding the trustworthy” and “punishing the disobedient”.
Liu Hu, a 43-year-old journalist who lives in China’s Chongqing municipality, told the ABC he was “dumbstruck” to find himself caught up in the system and banned by airlines when he tried to book a flight last year.
Mr Liu is on a “dishonest personnel” list — a pilot scheme of the SCS — because he lost a defamation lawsuit in 2015 and was asked by the court to pay a fine that is still outstanding according to the court record.
“No one ever notified me,” Mr Liu, who claims he paid the fine, said.
“It’s baffling how they just put me on the blacklist and kept me in the dark.”
Like the other 7 million citizens deemed to be “dishonest” and mired in the blacklist, Mr Liu has also been banned from staying in a star-rated hotel, buying a house, taking a holiday, and even sending his nine-year-old daughter to a private school.
And just last Monday, Chinese authorities announced they would also seek to freeze the assets of those deemed “dishonest people”.
Bonus points for donating blood and volunteer work
As the national system is still being fully realised, dozens of pilot social credit systems have already been tested by local governments at provincial and city levels.
For example, Suzhou, a city in eastern China, uses a point system where every resident is rated on a scale between 0 and 200 points — every resident starts from the baseline of 100 points.
One can earn bonus points for benevolent acts and lose points for disobeying laws, regulations, and social norms.
According to a 2016 report by local police, the top-rated Suzhou citizen had 134 points for donating more than one litre of blood and doing more than 500 hours of volunteer work.
In Xiamen, where the development of a local social credit system started as early as 2004, authorities reportedly automatically apply messages to the mobile phone lines of blacklisted citizens.
“The person you’re calling is dishonest,” whoever calls a lowly-rated person will be told before the call is put through.
Could China combine these projects to engineer society?
If the Chinese Government manages to amalgamate the regional pilot projects and the immense amounts of data by 2020, it will be able to exert absolute social and political control and “pre-emptively shape how people behave,” Samantha Hoffman, an independent consultant on Chinese state security, said.
“If you are aware that your behaviour will negatively or positively impact your score, and thus your life and the lives of those you associate with, then you will likely adjust your decision-making accordingly,” Ms Hoffman said.
But the question remains if the Chinese authorities could really “pull it off”, Ms Wang said.
“The Ministry of Public Security runs a number of databases, and then regional authorities also run their databases,” Ms Wang said.
“It is difficult to know how these databases are related together and how they’re structured and how they are updated.
“At the moment, I would say that they [are] updated to some extent but they’re not very well integrated, and the integration is going to be difficult.”
Hu Naihong, a finance professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, who is helping to build the national social credit system, seems to agree.
“The top-level design, the institutional framework, and the key documents are all in place, but there are still many problems to be solved,” the professor said in a 2017 meeting in Zhejiang.
“The most serious problem being that all kinds of platforms are rigorously collecting [data], while having vague legal and conceptual basis and boundaries.”
Many observers fear human rights could be increasingly violated via the social credit system, and — combined with a growing surveillance system and technologies such as facial recognition being rolled out across the country — the Chinese Government could have the ability to turn the system on its citizens.
“China is characterised by a system of ‘rule by law’, rather than true rule of law,” Elsa B Kania, an expert in Chinese defence innovation and emerging technologies at the Centre for a New American Security, said.
“That law [and extra-legal measures] can be used as a weapon to legitimise the targeting of those whom the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] perceives as a threat.
“In such an environment, such a system could be abused to those same ends.”
The question that remains to be answered in coming years, experts say, is where the line between “bettering society” and “controlling society” will be drawn.