The Chinese government’s appetite for total surveillance and total control of its citizenry has taken a new twist which would have made George Orwell proud. Beijing will expand it's previously employed spying on its citizens’ financial activity by restricting their travel based on an arbitrary score.
China will soon be imposing strict penalties for those with low scores on its so-called “social credit” system, beginning May 1. Launched by the government in 2012, this system vows to “make trustworthy people benefit everywhere and untrustworthy people restricted everywhere” by the time it is fully implemented in 2020. If you’re a Chinese citizen, you’d better not do anything that might be deemed an infraction because “once untrustworthy, always restricted,” is the guiding principle according to a document signed by government officials.
People won’t be allowed to travel on trains and planes for one year if they run afoul of the government in the arbitrary ways determined by it. This bad news comes in the form of an edict by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission. One might argue that being guilty of a criminal act - even a petty one - might rightfully constitute grounds to restrict a citizen’s travel to some degree.
Likewise, bad conduct on public transport (depending on how bad) could be defensible for being prohibited. But what if smoking on a, say, a bus, gets you banned from cross-border trains or international flights?
When you can also be penalized for having had bad luck with loans as if you were delinquent, that is a bridge too far! Who will decide how “bad” the bad financial history is? And why should that infringe upon someone’s right to travel? All this smacks of social engineering, but it gets worse. Speaking about arbitrary, individuals could land on the list (be tagged with a low “social credit” score) based solely on actions like who they speak with. Similarly, what someone purchases could earn a black mark or spreading false information. Again, what might be considered arbitrary and capricious in most places is par for the course in China.
As with most things associated with the Middle Kingdom, when it comes to enforcing its draconian law, is that this initiative is especially murky. That is because, apparently, no standards for objectionable offenses will exist. Consider that you could be flagged for leaving your bike lying across a sidewalk. There’s even an instance where making an insincere apology for an infraction could get you blacklisted. But how’s this for arbitrary..?
A few years ago a lawyer was said to have defamed a client whom he was defending on a rape charge. The court ordered him to issue an apology to the client. He did, but the date of the apology was 1 April. Because it was April Fool’s day, the apology was deemed to be insincere! He found that out later- when denied boarding a plane- that he had been blacklisted. He probably can commiserate with the more than seven million citizens already punished by this social engineering experiment gone haywire over the past few years.
And it’s likely only to get worse. What is more troubling is that it remains unclear exactly who will run the system, whether or how one can dispute scores, or even whether the system is legal. But again, this is to be expected in China where human rights take a back seat to government policies.
Image credit: By Jirawadee Jungthirapanich/Shutterstock.