Big brother stops millions boarding planes, trains in China


Nine million people have been banned from buying plane tickets and another 3 million from buying business-class train tickets, under a pervasive social scoring system being built by the Chinese government.

The type of bad behaviour that can lead to being blacklisted from travel ranges from a shopkeeper in Qingdao leaving four electric bikes parked on a footpath that obstructed pedestrians, to illegal home renovations by a property owner who refused to pull down his new sun room.

Many people have been blocked from using planes and trains for unpaid fines, with more than 815,000 court debtors placed on the blacklist.

Zhang Yong, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, which is overseeing the social credit system, on Tuesday conceded there were problems with it, telling reporters that “quite often” someone placed on the blacklist is unable to travel even after the debt was repaid.

The Chinese government says it needs to establish a credit system to develop a market economy. But what is planned goes well beyond the creditworthiness scores used by banks in Australia to determine the risk of lending to an individual or business.

China is building an index of social worthiness, based on an individual’s behaviour. It has been suggested the system may go further, and link to social media behaviour, which is tracked by Chinese internet giants.

Zhang said the first phase of the national credit sharing information platform was being used by 44 departments, across all provinces and 60 private enterprises, to disclose information and mete out “joint punishment”.

“We have set up more than 30 joint incentives and joint disciplinary mechanisms with relevant departments in areas such as taxation, industry and commerce, court enforcement, safety production, food and drug safety, and unpaid migrant workers,” he said.

Air travellers have been stranded hundreds of kilometres from home because of a blacklisting triggered by unpaid fines.

Air travellers have been stranded hundreds of kilometres from home because of a blacklisting triggered by unpaid fines.Photo: AP

The next step was to “increase the intensity of joint rewards and punishments so that dishonest people will be punished and the faithful will be motivated”.

Local governments and work units – grass-root level managers – were particularly active participants in the system.

A Credit China website that had been visited by 500 million people was publicly shaming “lao lai” or deadbeats who don’t pay their bills. But some provinces are reported to have also taken to broadcasting photographs of those blacklisted on large screens in public places.

The Qingdao shopkeeper was listed on March 1 for failing to pay a 500 Chinese yuan fine (about $100) for the illegally parked bikes within 15 days.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that individuals who find themselves incorrectly listed have experienced difficulty in getting their names removed.

Human Rights Watch has highlighted the case of lawyer Li Xiaolin who was stranded 1900 kilometres from home, unable to catch a plane, after a court listed him for “insincere apology” without his knowledge.

“Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights,” wrote HRW’s China researcher Maya Wang recently.

Zhang told reporters the system needs improvement.

“The object covered by the construction of a social credit system is ultimately human beings and enterprises, so it must be accurate. To be accurate, it should depend on laws and regulations, systems and standards,” he said.

He said processes to exit the black list, and dispute mechanisms, need to be improved.

“It is troublesome for the dishonest people to not be able to get on the plane. There have been relevant media reports in this respect… when a ‘Lao Lai’ pays back the money, why is he still under restriction? Now this problem has been seen quite often.”

He also acknowledged there was a time delay in information being updated from different provinces and counties.

He said the system was being built to develop a credit culture and an “atmosphere in which the whole society keeps its promise”.

Around 6000 companies were restricted from accessing finance based on social credit scores, which also cover environmental infringements and dumping.

By Kirsty Needham


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