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    Mar
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    2018
    China’s warning to untrustworthy citizens: you shall not board
    China’s warning to untrustworthy citizens: you shall not board
    SOCIETY

    China’s warning to untrustworthy citizens: you shall not board

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    by
    Alan Wong
    Alan Wong
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    China's big brother has a message for untrustworthy citizens: you shall not board.

    The Chinese government said it would toughen punishment against people with bad “social credit” in the form of a year-long ban on travel by air and premium train classes.

    Misconduct which would put you in the category of “serious trust breaker” includes not paying taxes and abusing social benefits, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, a powerful economic planning agency.

    The travel ban, effective May 1, is part of the country's push to set up a nationwide system by 2020 that punishes people based on their social credit scores. The campaign has a tag line: “Break trust in one place, roadblocks everywhere.”

    'There is an enormous potential for surveillance,' said Severine Arsene, who researches China's digital governance.
    'There is an enormous potential for surveillance,' said Severine Arsene, who researches China's digital governance. Photo: Xinhua
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    The announcement on Friday effectively adds a list of trust-breaking misconduct to an already huge travel blacklist.

    Based on a database of “untrustworthy persons subject to enforcement” started in 2013, more than 10 million people have been prevented from buying plane tickets, said Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People's Court, earlier this month. 

    In his work report to China’s legislature, Zhou said that more than two million people had “fulfilled their obligations” for fear of punishment.

    The official goal of the system is to encourage honest dealings in society and commerce, but it's been criticized as an Orwellian measure to control its citizens.

    Those with bad 'social credit' will be punished with a year-long ban on travel by air and premium train classes.
    Those with bad 'social credit' will be punished with a year-long ban on travel by air and premium train classes. Photo: EPA-EFE

    “There is an enormous potential for surveillance, which is out of proportion with the stated goals of enhancing trust in economic transactions,” said Severine Arsene, a researcher of China's digital governance and managing editor of journal AsiaGlobal Online at the University of Hong Kong.

    “But trustworthiness is not only based on wealth or the ability to pay debts. It is clearly also measured according to moral and political factors,” she said.

    Group 5
    We've seen human rights defenders and ethnic minorities being singled out as targets through similar systems
    -
    William Nee, Amnesty International

    To that end, human rights watchdogs are concerned that the system would enable political abuse.

    “It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the Chinese government weaponizes and abuses these social control systems against vulnerable populations in the name of security,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

    “We've seen human rights defenders and ethnic minorities being singled out as targets through similar systems in recent years.”

    Financial wrong-doing aside, misbehaviors that would earn you a ban include:

    • Spreading false terrorism threats
    • Possessing banned substances 
    • Threatening security and airline staff
    • Opening a plane’s emergency exit

    Ordinarily, each ban expires after a year. In cases of unmet financial obligations, the ban can be lifted within one week – as long as you just pay up.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

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