Chinese Actress Blocked from Travel by Social Credit System

HUZHOU, CHINA - DECEMBER 27: Actress Michelle Ye Xuan meets media during the shooting of TV series 'Lou Wai Lou' on December 27, 2016 in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Actress and former Miss Chinese International Michelle Ye Xuan, whose resume includes numerous films and television shows, has become the highest-profile “untrustworthy” citizen to be banned from travel by China’s social credit system, a massive surveillance and data-mining operation that grades Chinese for the quality of their citizenship and punishes those with poor scores.

The UK Daily Mail reported on Thursday that Ye discovered she had been banned from travel when she attempted to board a flight out of Beijing last month. The story of how she was barred from travel makes it sound as if she should not have been surprised, since her legal problems were fairly obvious, unlike many of those punished by the social credit system.

A vast array of undesirable behaviors can reduce the social credit score – China has cameras that can catch people jaywalking, identify them through facial recognition software, and dock their credit score accordingly.

In Ye’s case, the problem is a court judgment against her for defaming a romantic rival on social media. The former girlfriend of her boyfriend circa 2017 sued her for spreading malicious rumors on Weibo, which is China’s heavily-policed version of Twitter.

Ye was subsequently penalized for failing to obey a court order that required her to delete the malicious postings, apologize to the target of her gossip, and pay a fine of about $1500. According to the Daily Mail’s account, she further antagonized the court by ignoring repeated attempts to contact her, and even subpoenas. When the social credit system caught up with her at Beijing Capital International Airport and she was blocked from boarding her plane, she spoke with a judge and agreed to comply with the court order, deleting her malicious Weibo posts while she was still at the airport.

The incident will likely be touted as a great success by China’s social credit engineers since Ye provided them with both a famous face and a textbook example of bad citizenship corrected by the stern hand and all-seeing eye of the Chinese surveillance state.

On the other hand, it hardly takes a nightmarish dystopian data processing system to penalize people for repeatedly and flagrantly defying court orders. China itself has often restricted travel for people with legal problems without needing the social credit computer system, notably including another actress who was accused of tax evasion last year, Fan Bingbing.

An added wrinkle to Michelle Ye Xuan’s case is that the 39-year-old actress was raised in the United States and studied at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The Daily Mail stated it was unclear if she was carrying a U.S. passport when she was blocked from departure at the Beijing airport. Ye is such a perfect poster girl for the social credit system that she might, as the old Hollywood saying goes, have come straight from central casting.

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