China has introduced the Social Credit System in 12 demonstration cities. Shutterstock
In less than a month, China’s Lunar New Year will bring the country’s annual epic travel rush – the largest human migration on earth.
While many are planning trips to their home towns to attend family reunions, millions more Chinese citizens have been blacklisted by authorities, labelled as “not qualified” to book flights or high-speed train tickets.
This citizen ranking and blacklisting mechanism is a pilot scheme of China’s Social Credit System. With a mission to “raise the awareness of integrity and the level of trustworthiness of Chinese society”, the Chinese government is planning to launch the system nationwide by 2020 to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.4 billion citizens.
The word “credit” in Chinese – xinyong (信用) – is a core tenet of traditional Confucian ethics, which can be traced back to the late 4th century BC. In its original context, xinyong is a moral concept that indicates one’s honesty and trustworthiness. In the past few decades, its meaning has been extended to include financial creditworthiness.
So what does “credit” mean in the Social Credit System?
It is a question Chinese authorities have been exploring for more than 10 years. When the plan of constructing a Social Credit System was first proposed in 2007, the primary goal was to restore market order by leveraging the financial creditworthiness of businesses and individuals.
Gradually the scope of the project has infiltrated other aspects of daily life.
Actions that can now harm one’s personal credit record include not showing up to a restaurant without having cancelled the reservation, cheating in online games, leaving false product reviews, and jaywalking.
Ninan Transport Police demonstrates how facial recognition is used to identify pedestrians jaywalking. Nanjin Transport Police's public Weibo post
Reaping rewards for ‘good deeds’
One shared focus of the country’s existing pilot schemes is to generate a standardisedreward and punishment system based on a citizen’s credit score.
A Chinese citizen showing her ‘trustworthy card’ Henan Broadcasting's public Weibo post
Most pilot cities have used a points system, whereby everyone starts off with a baseline of 100 points. Citizens can earn bonus points up to the value of 200 by performing “good deeds”, such as engaging in charity work or separating and recycling rubbish. In Suzhou city, for example, one can earn six points for donating blood.
Being a “good citizen” is well rewarded. In some regions, citizens with high social credit scores can enjoy free gym facilities, cheaper public transport, and shorter wait times in hospitals. Those with low scores, on the other hand, may face restrictions to their travel and public service access.
At this stage, scores are connected to a citizen’s identification card number. But the Chinese internet court has proposed an online identification system connected to social media accounts.
Publishing the details of blacklisted citizens online is a common practice, but some cities choose to take public shaming to another level.
Several provinces have been using TV and LED screens in public spaces to expose people. In some regions authorities have remotely personalised the dial tones of blacklisted debtors so that callers will hear a message akin to: “the person you are calling is a dishonest debtor.”