China’s new credit reports are the government’s latest censorship tool

graph bars with china's flag imprinted on them

Watch what you say, or your credit score might plummet.

Chinese Internet users now have one more reason to look over their digital shoulders at the government’s nearly inescapable surveillance and censorship regime.

China has begun introducing credit reports for its citizens based on their political opinions, in addition to the opinions of their friends, according to a report in Kit, a Swedish news site. The scores are publicly released through the website Credit China and an app called Sesame Credit.

If someone’s stated opinion matches up with that of the Chinese government, they end up with better credit. If not, life can get far more difficult.

In the rest of the world, credit reports reflect someone’s ability to repay borrowed money. If your credit score goes up, you can more easily borrow more money to pay bills for school, medicine, housing, or anything else you might need or want. In China, the newly introduced credit report—which will become mandatory by 2020—is fundamentally different.

The scores “are calculated based on five factors,” according to a press release from Chinese tech giant Alibaba: “Credit history, behavioral preference, fulfillment capability, personal attributes and social network.”

A Chinese government policy outline warned that people who “spread rumors” would be blacklisted, their online behavior rated, restricted, and banned.

A State Council notice from June 2014 said that “rumor mongering” cold result in social credit blacklisting. The notice declared that the new credit reports were supposed to “strengthen and perfect mass supervision and public opinion supervision mechanisms.”

The Chinese government has a long history of censoring, punishing, and even jailing citizens who stray from the Communist Party’s official line. “Rumor mongering” is being widely interpreted as a euphemism for express any forbidden thought.

Last week, after China suffered a rash of deadly mail bombs, the government forbade journalists from reporting on the incidents and blocked thousands of messages on social networks.

Circumventing this censorship by “spreading rumors” and unapproved news can provoke harsh punishments. That list of possible reprisals, which already includes imprisonment, may soon include a lower credit score and the revocation of all the privileges that come with a high score.

Privacy News Online reported that purchases like video games drive down a score while purchases like dishwashers push it up. Higher scores bestow immediate and significant privileges, including fast travel permits and quick visas.

The prospect of skipping the notoriously long and harsh process of obtaining a Schengen visa, which allows Chinese citizens access to the entire Eurozone, is a major reward for good credit.

“Do you see what’s happening here?” Rick Falkvinge, a privacy activist, wrote in Privacy News Online. “This means that people need to choose between that coveted European vacation and keeping in touch with their old friends who are disagreeing with the regime’s opinions openly. This means that staying in touch with dissidents will cause you and your family to lose out on social benefits. As a result, this will very effectively isolate and neuter anybody who posts unofficial political opinions or unofficial history facts. They’ll effectively be sent into social exile, based on everything they do, write, think, and discuss online.”

The Chinese economy has operated for years without a credit-score system, but Beijing is pushing its new rating initiative as a way of boosting domestic consumption and driving forward the world’s second-largest economy.

H/T Privacy News Online | Illustration by Max Fleishman 

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.