Mon, Jun 24, 2019 - Page 7 News List

China’s most advanced Big Brother experiment is a bureaucratic mess

Suzhou is one of several Chinese cities running trial social-credit programs, and while its ‘Osmanthus’ program has won national awards, many of its residents have never heard of it

By Dandan Li and Sharon Chen  /  Bloomberg

While good behavior — such as volunteering, paying bills on time or avoiding fines for littering — is supposed to be rewarded with financial perks, bad behavior can abruptly leave residents without access to financing and public services.

Osmanthus collects data on individuals from about 20 government departments, including social security and civil affairs, the local administration said. Citizens start out with a neutral 100 points and can build them up to a maximum of 200 through good behavior.

Like many other provinces trialing the system, Suzhou has not yet introduced rules to define bad behavior, or the number of points that can be deducted, but perks for good behavior also are unclear.

Lu Wenting, a Suzhou resident who says she does about 24 hours of volunteer work each week, said that she had never heard of Osmanthus, even though it is supposed to grant public transport benefits to those with high scores.

She found out her own score was a healthy “123” after Bloomberg reporters helped her look it up on the WeChat app run by Tencent Holdings.

About one in eight of the 13 million people monitored in Suzhou had a score above 100 as of August last year, local media reports said.

Only 4,731 were below 100, and all were so-called defaulters who had not paid back loans or had failed to obey court rulings. That leaves more than 11 million people with scores at the baseline.

Still, the idea of punishment is already sparking worries.

A citizen in Yiwu, a city in neighboring Zhejiang Province that is also running a trial, said he was denied a bank loan because a traffic cop deducted three points from his score for failing to give way to pedestrians crossing a street.

Residents with a score of at least 100 points qualify for “civilization loans” with favorable interest rates.

“People from lower levels of society could break rules without knowing and find their scores lowered and get shut out of more and more opportunities,” said Chen Shicai, a resident in Suzhou, expressing worries that social credit could worsen inequality in a country that already grapples with huge wealth divisions.

One problem is how to integrate social credit into existing legal systems to ensure there are checks and balances to prevent abuse. China’s use of technology and informants among the Uighur in Xinjiang suggest that the programs could become more oppressive as they develop.

“I worry that regulations may become too specific, such as parking in the wrong spot,” said Su Su, an insurance saleswoman in Suzhou. “People could end up living in fear, worrying that they are being watched all the time.”

Five provinces or municipalities — Shanghai, Zhejiang, Hebei, Hubei and Shaanxi — have established local credit regulations, but there are no national rules.

Zhejiang and Shanghai placed clear restrictions on data collection that exclude personal information on religious beliefs, genetics, fingerprints, blood types and medical history.

“While most of the trials are leaning towards encouraging people with convenience and perks, local authorities need to exercise caution when it comes to punishment,” said Han Jiaping (韓家平), director of the Credit Research Institute affiliated with the Ministry of Commerce.

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