The excesses of China’s social credit system


Invasions of privacy and a blacklist for small or subjective infractions are making many question the integrity of a system designed to promote integrity.

Sesame Credit (芝麻信用 zhīma xìnyòng) is the leader in the “social credit” industry, which aims to develop an all-encompassing system for ranking Chinese citizens’ trustworthiness, for both commercial and government security purposes.

  • On January 3, the Alibaba subsidiary admitted to an “extremely stupid” design in its app’s settings that inconspicuously shared all users’ credit data with Alibaba’s separate payment app, Alipay, by default, Sixth Tone reports.
  • The New York Times calls (paywall) the outcry over this a “rare, public rebuttal of a prevailing trend in China,” and evidence of “a nascent, but growing, demand for increased privacy and data protections online.”
  • See a summary yesterday on SupChina about changes in China’s Nanny State and how citizens are reacting.

Separately, the Globe and Mail looks at another specific excess of China’s social credit system: a government blacklist called the List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (失信被执行人名单 shīxìn bèi zhíxíngrén míngdān). It is a list of 7.49 million people, all of whom are restricted in their ability to purchase property, take out loans, buy train tickets, and more. It includes people like:

  • A journalist who was punished for “spreading rumors” about official corruption, and then blacklisted without his knowledge when he refused to publish an apology to his social media account.
  • A two-year-old girl who was assigned to bear her father’s debt, totaling $25,000, after he was executed in 2014 for murdering his wife. The girl’s grandfather told the Globe and Mail that she was now on the government blacklist because the debt was not paid off.
  • A shoplifter of $70 worth of cigarettes, and others who had missed various payments worth less than $2,000.

The Globe and Mail talked with Lin Junyue, an “academic sometimes called the founder of China’s social-credit theory,” who admitted that the blacklist system has excesses, but says that he and many others still believe that its benefits outweigh its costs. Many of those others are the government’s policymakers, who “want the full system in place in three years,” as “they say it will bring about a more honest, trustworthy country.”