This is how Chinese citizens are watched and rated

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 10 Apr 2019

China’s ambitious plan to assign lifelong scores to citizens based on their behaviour has stoked international concern, even as the project remains nascent and numerous hurdles must be overcome before the experiment can be implemented nationwide. 

In fact, the so-called social credit system is merely an extension of the myriad ways the government already rates its citizens. Here’s a breakdown of the systems China has in place. 

Supreme Court blacklist 

People who defy court orders are barred from numerous privileges, including getting loans, buying houses and sending their kids to private schools. Judges decide who’s blacklisted, and individuals can appeal to be removed once their issue has been rectified. The US Supreme Court maintains a public database with full names and identification numbers of those on the list. By the end of 2018, people with bad debt had been prevented from taking more than 17 million flights, 5 million train trips and blocked from acting as executives or legal business representatives 290,000 times, according to the court. 

Personal credit rating 

China’s central bank sits atop a vast pool of credit profiles for nearly 1 billion people and 26 million enterprises. Its database includes information on bank loans, social security, housing pension, tax evasion and even court rulings. Financial institutions ranging from the nation’s five biggest banks to small loan companies are able to use it to check citizens’ credit scores – preventing those with bad credit from taking on more debt. 

Records are automatically refreshed after several years and infractions can be expunged, with the frequency of those updates linked to the seriousness of what the person did wrong. The system is similar to credit ratings used in many other countries. 

Sesame credit 

Ant Financial, an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, uses the scoring system to track its customers’ creditworthiness. The company suffered some backlash when users discovered they were automatically signed up for the programme, called Zhima Credit in Chinese, without being notified. This score can affect a range of things, including whether customers need to put down a deposit to rent a bicycle and whether members qualify to borrow 500 yuan (RM305) interest-free. Separately, the company also provides larger loans, based on a different system for evaluating applicants. Ant argues that its system is needed because so many people – especially those living in rural areas of China – don’t have credit scores (or even bank accounts). 

Tourism blacklist 

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism names and shames citizens who behave in an “uncivilised” manner overseas, and bans them from traveling. Offenses include fighting, stealing – even climbing on public statues. The country’s Civil Aviation Administration has imposed flying bans on those who flout airline safety rules, after a string of incidents involving Chinese travellers accidentally opening emergency exits. Most recently, Beijing park authorities proposed using artificial intelligence and facial recognition to identify and bar tourists who exhibit bad behaviour from its parks during the Qingming Festival, or national tomb-sweeping holiday, the state-run Global Times reported. 

National blacklist 

The National Development and Reform Commission – which is spearheading the social credit plan – set up a branch in 2017 to promote information-sharing between government departments and China’s vast regions. In its 2018 annual report, the NDRC said it had added some 14.2 million incidents to a list of “dishonest” activities – but that more than 2 million people had also successfully been removed from the blacklist. NDRC deputy secretary-general Zhou Xiaofei warned Tuesday that companies with low credit ratings will face disciplinary measures, including restricted financing. 

Social credit system 

All these systems could ultimately feed into or influence the establishment of the nationwide Social Credit System the government wants in place by 2020 to determine whether its citizens are well behaved and punish or reward them accordingly. A number of cities have been experimenting with the concept for years, and 12 were selected as pilots on Jan 1, 2018. 

People have points added or deducted depending on everyday social behaviour including recycling, keeping their dogs leashed and parking cars where they’re supposed to. Local governments have also adapted their own systems to focus on particular behaviours they want to address. Ultimately, data collected from various blacklists and rating systems already in use could feed into the overarching national programme. The city of Taiyuan this week said traffic violations will be included in personal credit scores, local media reported. – Bloomberg

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