China’s Social Credit System Humiliates ‘Deadbeats’ with Embarrassing Ringtone

Passengers wait for a train to depart from the Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province. In China, only those who cannot afford the high-speed train take the slow train. Photo: AP
Associated Press

China’s “social credit” system–a dystopian surveillance nightmare that monitors people in countless ways and automatically dishes out punishments for poor citizenship and political dissidence–is humiliating “discredited individuals” by forcing them to use an embarrassing ringtone on their cell phones.

The South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday that most people with low social credit scores were labeled “discredited” or “deadbeats” because they have debt problems. The most widely reported punishment meted out by the computerized system is restricted travel privileges. Many of the subjects learn they have slipped into the worst category, known as laolai, when they attempt to board an airplane and are turned away at the gate.

The SCMP pointed out that many other indignities are heaped upon the laolai, such as forcing them to ride on special slow trains, banning them from renting hotel rooms–and, most bizarrely, forcing them to use a special ringtone that embarrasses them every time they receive a phone call in public.

Australia’s ABC News said the ringtone sounds like a siren and is accompanied by a verbal message cautioning callers to be “careful in their business dealings” with the alleged deadbeat.

ABC News reported on another over-the-top aspect of the social credit system: an app running on WeChat that generates a map with a radar-style graphic overlay that “pings” every laolai around the user. The app is commonly known as the “Deadbeat Map.”

As of January, the system appeared to be displaying the registered home addresses of people with low credit scores, but there is no reason it could not be upgraded to show their current live locations based on their cell phones and other information gathered by the increasingly inescapable Chinese surveillance system.

“Tapping on a person marked on the map reveals their personal information, including their full name, court case number and the reason they have been labeled untrustworthy. Identity card numbers and home addresses are also partially shown,” ABC reported.

For the benefit of anyone still foolish enough to believe there is meaningful separation between the totalitarian Chinese Communist government and “private” Chinese business enterprises, WeChat management insisted the Deadbeat Map is totally compliant with its user privacy and data security standards. It is an app that will display extensive personal information to complete strangers if the government decides to lower one’s “social credit” score below a certain threshold–a decision citizens are not always informed of in a timely manner, but it’s no problem at all for WeChat’s privacy standards.

A “discredited individual” named David Kong, who was recently forced onto a 30-hour train ride because his low social credit score barred him from taking a three-hour trip by airplane, told the South China Morning Post that being a laolai is worse than serving time in prison.

“Being on the list means that as long as you can’t clear your debts in full, your name will always be there,” he said.

Kong went on to explain that not only was the 30-hour train ride uncomfortable, but the business associates who picked him up at the railroad station instantly knew he had a low social credit score. He noted this aspect of the system creates a downward spiral where people with debt problems cannot make business deals or land good jobs to earn the money they need to address their financial situation. His creditors essentially told the SCMP that he deserves his fate because he went into debt taking out loans for a sham book publishing company.

Kong actually wanted to make the social credit system more extensive by adding more inputs that would help “deadbeats” repair their reputations by doing community service and engaging in responsible activities. According to ABC, the engineers of the Orwellian system are thinking more in terms of adding more ways to reduce social credit scores:

One private credit system using data from Alibaba rates people not only on their financial capacity but also on their consumer choices.

The example Sesame Credit technology director Li Yingyun gave Chinese media is that a person who buys nappies regularly is responsible, while someone who plays video games all day would be considered lazy.

Getting kicked off an airplane because the national computer system decides you play too many video games sounds like a satire of dystopian science fiction, but it is actually a logical progression of the system, whose stated goal is to increase “social dependability”–in other words, the old Communist ideal of hard-working, obedient, politically reliable subjects.

Any American tempted to laugh at the absurdity of the Chinese system should pause to reflect that most of the data processing capacity and raw information to inflict such a system on Americans is already in place. It is not difficult to imagine a “Medicare for All” socialized medicine system that monitors how much time its captive subjects spend playing video games versus healthy fitness activity and adjusts their mandatory “contributions” accordingly.


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