China's Citizen Tracking System Can Wreck People's Lives

4 million people have been blocked from buying high-speed train tickets, and worse consequences, over their low "social credit" scores

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13 December 2018, 9:00am

RONGCHENG, China — Here and in other cities across China, monitors have been tracking people's behaviors — good and bad — for the country's new Social Credit System. It’s kind of like the American credit score system, except it tracks far more than financial transactions.

And the consequences can be pretty serious.

Part of the system is a neighbor watch program that's being piloted across the country where designated watchers are paid to record people's behaviors that factor into their social credit score. Zhou Aini, for one, gets paid $50 USD a month to watch her neighbors as an "information collector." She records observations in a notebook and then shares it with a local government office that determines the results.

A high score could bring you lower interest loans and discounted rent and utility bills, but if your score is low, you can be subjected to public shaming or even banned from certain kinds of travel. Basically, your life gets harder.

The system started from a goal of helping citizens build creditworthiness, as China's economy exploded and economic reforms required banks to be able to evaluate individuals looking to borrow money to buy houses or start new businesses. Fraud and excess borrowing were rampant because most people didn't really have much of a credit history. To measure its citizens' trustworthiness, in 2014, The State Council laid out a plan that aims to build a centralized database to evaluate individuals and organizations based on their financial and social behaviors.

The program is scheduled to be implemented nationwide by 2020, which means every Chinese citizen will be tracked and scored, and will receive perks and restrictions accordingly.

VICE News went to a village in one of the first pilot cities to see how the local office translates the behaviors of 3,000 residents there into social credit scores.

This segment originally aired December 11, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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