Rewards and punishments

Cities are also playing with their own localized versions of the Unified Rewards and Punishments system. But at the city level, these programs are typically almost entirely carrot, and very little stick. Perks are offered to those with high scores, and punishments for low scores are light or non-existent.

Though the central government didn’t dictate exactly which rewards a city should offer, they did provide some general direction. In June 2019, the central government released a policy draft that urges regional governments to incentivize good credit behavior by offering preferential treatment in public services such as settlement, education, travel, housing, employment, medical care and administrative matters.1

And it’s clear that cities are taking this advice to heart.

Examples of benefits of Good Social Credit at the Municipal Level (Individuals)
City Benefit for citizens with excellent social credit
Fuzhou 2
  • Discounts on road tolls and public parking
  • “Green channel” services at hospitals and during annual vehicle inspections
  • Preferential treatment in areas of education, employment, housing, elder care and social aid (this does not refer to receiving medical treatment or education at the expense of someone with a lower score, but rather access to perks like temporary waiving of admission deposits).
  • Priority submission of loan applications
  • Those will high social credit will be prioritized when they or their companies are bidding for government projects
  • Simplified application procedures at government bureaus, high social credit scores will stand in for background checks
  • When applying for Party promotions or civil service positions, all else being equal, priority will be given to those with higher social credit scores
Shandong 3
  • Ride city shared bikes without a deposit, and ride for 2 hours for free.
Suqian 4
  • Individuals with high social credit rankings enjoy a 6% discount when recharging city transportation cards.
Weihai 5
  • Favorable loan conditions
  • 5-9% discounts on tickets to local tourist attractions.
  • Waiting of paying hospital deposits on admission (fee must still be paid). Excellent credit exempted up to RMB 50,000, good credit exempted up to 20,000.
  • Exempted from paying wheelchair deposits at hospitals
  • Fast-tracked discharge at hospitals
  • Deposit-free borrowing up to 8 library books
  • Free installation and exemption from paying equipment deposits for HDTV and broadband services
  • Free water meter calibration and VIP service from water utility
  • Free quarterly home safety inspections from electrical utility supplier
  • Fast-tracked administrative services
  • Priority treatment in various selection processes
Wuhu 6
  • Free use of badminton and basketball courts Monday-Friday mornings
  • Free bottles of water and free souvenirs at local scenic spots
Xiamen 7
  • Deposit-free borrowing of up to 40 library books

Citizen blacklists: naming and shaming

While the main focus of the blacklisting system is on enforcing corporate compliance, that isn’t its only function. The use of the Unified Rewards and Punishments system also extends well into the social sphere, with a heavy emphasis on naming and shaming blacklisted individuals. This is where the ethics of the SCS get extremely fuzzy, and its applications become the most Orwellian.

Most citizen blacklists are a matter of public record, and are treated kind of like the sex offender registry in the United States. In addition to its own massive network of websites and social media accounts where blacklists are published, the government also actively seeks to maximize the social embarrassment brought on by blacklist inclusion.

A few examples:

In Beijing, the Supreme People’s Court is working with tech giant Qihoo 360 to embarrass those included on the defaulter blacklist. “The hundreds of millions of people who have the Qihoo 360 app installed on their phones will soon receive notifications on their screens whenever they call or are called by a person on the Chaoyang District court’s blacklist. Calls with people who have outstanding debts, with divorced parents who don’t comply with child support or honor visitation rights, or with employers who refuse to pay their staff will prompt a message that reads: “Included on the list of dishonest individuals.”8

The government of Sichuan Province undertook a similar initiative: “When someone rings a defaulter, [instead of a ring tone], this message plays: “The person you are calling has been put on a blacklist by the courts for failing to repay their debts. Please urge this person to honour their legal obligations.”9

“Local courts in eastern China’s Anhui province took advantage of heavy traffic during the May 1 holiday to shame debtors by displaying their faces and personal information on billboards and televisions in public areas. The Shushan District Court in Hefei broadcast the photograph, name, identity number, amount owed and other information for each culprit on giant screens for 11 hours a day at public squares during peak travel times, Hefei Evening News reported on Wednesday.”10

Developers are even creating apps where users can see who in their area is on the court defaulter blacklist.

Chinas social credit system: debtor blacklist app

This kind of stuff is happening because, as we’ll see in later sections, Unified Rewards and Punishments doesn’t just connect government agencies to each other through social credit enforcement. It also encourages private companies, industry associations, financial institutions, and other organizations to cooperate in the shaming and punishment of blacklisted people, thus making the dragnet ever tighter.

Equally concerning is the fact that policymakers have paid too little attention to the process of redress, particularly in cases of wrongful blacklisting. While someone can appeal to be removed from a blacklist, once it’s been publicized, the reputational damage has already been done. So far, these tactics seem to incite mild curiosity rather than ridicule or social ostracization, but there is a real possibility that these methods open the door to a culture of finger pointing and witch hunts.

  1. PDF: 关于对模范践行诚实守信个人实施联合激励加快推进个人诚信体系建设的指导意见(征求意见稿)
  2. 抚州市个人“玉茗分”信用管理办法(试行)
  3. Commentary: Rating citizens – can China’s social credit system fix its trust deficit?
  4. 宿迁正式发布个人信用积分——西楚分
  5. 威海市信用积分惠民政策清单
  6. 芜湖市全力打造的居民信用积分——乐惠分
  7. 厦门白鹭分作用是什么?
  8. Chinese App Gives Blacklisted People ‘Dishonest’ Caller ID
  9. Debtors in China are placed on a blacklist that prohibits them from flying, buying train tickets, and staying at luxury hotels
  10. Chinese App Gives Blacklisted People ‘Dishonest’ Caller ID