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Fears about China’s social-credit system are probably overblown, but it will still be chilling

Passengers wait to enter a subway outside Beijing Railway Station during the Chinese LunarNew Year holiday travel rush. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Beijing (The Washington Post) - The potential power of China’s nascent social-credit system was glimpsed last month with the announcement that millions of Chinese were banned last year from traveling by air or high-speed rail. “Untrustworthy” people were blocked from buying airline tickets 17.5 million times, while 5.5 million high-speed rail ticket purchases were stopped. The people restricted from traveling were on a Supreme People’s Court blacklist for failing to repay debts.

The blacklist is just one incarnation of the still largely opaque social-credit system, which now includes institutions, businesses and communities that grade the public and private behavior of Chinese citizens.

The announcement of the travel-ban data came from the National Public Credit Information Center, a subsidiary of China’s main planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission. The center was established in September 2017 to collect data related to social credit, and to connect various regions and levels of government for sharing the data, with the aim of rolling out a national social-credit system by 2020.

The central government has never spelled out what the national social-credit system will look like. But Zhang Lili, a researcher at Peking University tasked with designing the national system, told me in a recent interview that, contrary to popular imagination, the system wouldn’t be a unified platform doling out unique scores to China’s 1.4 billion citizens.

Instead, the national program is envisioned as a web of individual systems run by cities, hospitals, businesses and agricultural-produce markets — all linked by data-sharing and using incentives and penalties to make people and businesses behave as the government wishes.

The schemes are heterogeneous and leave plenty of latitude to whomever runs them. A social-credit system run by a city, for example, might penalize businesses for failing to comply with safety rules, but a system run by a neighborhood might deduct points from residents who fail to care for elderly family members or spread defamatory rumors online.

The social-credit system has two major aims: The first is to hold businesses accountable and boost Chinese consumers’ confidence — eroded by years of scams and food-safety scandals. The second aim, of course, is political control. The system’s 2014 founding document proclaimed that discredited citizens would find it hard “to take a single step.” Some Chinese are already finding out just how difficult movement might become. Rongcheng, a city in east China that has adopted a comprehensive social-credit system, has moved to protect itself from embarrassment by heavily penalizing the social-credit scores of residents who travel to Beijing to petition the central government to redress their mistreatment at the local level.

For outside observers, and for many Chinese as well, a major worry is whether China’s social-credit system will morph into something akin to the surveillance state currently in place in the country’s western Xinjiang province. The region — with countless police checkpoints, internment camps holding about 1 million members of ethnic minorities, most of them Uighurs, and compulsory collection of biometric data — is seen by some as a test laboratory for measures that could be adopted in the rest of China.

The social-credit system and atmosphere in Xinjiang have some things in common. In both cases, authorities employ extensive surveillance methods and big data analysis to essentially limit people’s freedom of movement and expression.

Both aim to preemptively shape the ways people act: the social-credit system through incentives and sanctions, the Xinjiang policies via police-state measures against ethnic minorities.

But there’s an essential difference between the two. The social-credit system’s success depends on the public’s embracing it for the benefits it brings them. Rongcheng high-scorers I interviewed were excited about the social-credit system because it allowed them access to better bank loans and discounts on heating bills.

That is in bleak contrast with those affected by the policies in Xinjiang. Dozens of family members of people held in internment camps whom I interviewed, as well as camp survivors, were devastated because they didn’t know what they had done to deserve being sent to the camps. Interviewees and human-rights activists say that common reasons why Muslim minorities are detained include speaking to relatives abroad or publicly praying.

Government policies are generally tailored not to alienate the 1.3 billion Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of the population. James Millward, a professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, told me in an interview that the Communist Party enacted the draconian policies in Xinjiang because the Han “have been taught, and continue to be taught, Islamophobic propaganda” and “will get angry at the party, will reject the party” if the government does not offer protection.

The government would be taking a giant gamble with Han loyalty if the national social-credit system morphs into a similarly oppressive surveillance program. The system, scheduled to make its debut in 2020, might still turn out to be formidable and chilling, but it is likely to go only so far as the Han will tolerate.

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