Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control


Journalist Liu Hu, who was arrested and accused of ‘fabricating and spreading rumours’ in 2013 and was required to pay a fee as part of his punishment, found out afterward of state-imposed restrictions placed on his ability to buy property, take out a loan or travel on the country’s top-tier trains. PHOTO/Liu Hu

Liu Hu spent two decades pushing hard at the bounds of censorship in China. An accomplished journalist, he used a blog to accuse high-level officials of corruption and wrongdoing and to publish details of misconduct by authorities.

In late 2013, he was arrested and accused of “fabricating and spreading rumours.” Late in 2016, in a separate case, a court found him guilty of defamation and ordered him to apologize on his social-media account, which at the time had 740,000 followers. If he was unwilling to do that, the court said, he could pay verdict in an authorized news outlet. Mr. Liu paid the court $115, an amount he says he believed would cover publication costs.

Then, he said, the judge told him the entire verdict needed to be published, at a cost of at least $1,330.

But in the midst of Mr. Liu’s attempt to seek legal redress early in 2017, he discovered that his life had abruptly changed: Without any notice, he had been caught up in the early reaches of a social-credit system that China is developing as a pervasive new tool for social control – one expected to one day tighten the state’s grip on its citizens. Critics have called it an Orwellian creation – a new kind of “thought police.”

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

It was only months later that Mr. Liu discovered what had happened. A friend pointed him to a website run by China’s Supreme People’s Court called the List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement, a formalized catalogue of exclusion. In Mr. Liu’s case, the reason states: “This person refuses to fulfill the duties listed in the verdict even though he is able to do so.”

The blacklist, which by this summer had swelled to 7.49 million names, is among the most visible early elements of a social-credit rating system that can assess a person’s commercial, social, political and moral life, providing benefits to those considered trustworthy and restrictions on those who are not. Chinese planners want the full system in place in three years. They say it will bring about a more honest, trustworthy country.

But a Globe and Mail review of more than two dozen cases, including one of a girl blacklisted as a toddler and another of a man blacklisted for stealing a few packs of cigarettes, suggests the system is exacting an outsized toll even now, in its earliest days. Mr. Liu’s case, too, shows how the social-credit system is being used to silence dissent.

Globe and Mail for more

Comments are closed.