Journalists' online activity could hurt their financial standing under a new Chinese plan
By Yaqiu Wang
In what would be a uniquely daunting form of censorship, the Chinese government is making plans to link journalists' financial credibility to their online posts.
The creation of China's system of credit scoring, which will be implemented in stages, could result in scenarios in which journalists who write or speak critically of the government face direct, personal financial consequences. Those consequences could be life-altering: A journalist whose social media post is deemed a "rumor" by the government could see her credit score lowered, resulting in her being denied a loan or saddled with a high interest rate.
The impacts could also be more mundane, such as if the same journalist attempted to sell a secondhand bicycle on Taobao, China's equivalent to Amazon, only to find the prospective buyer backing out due to trust issues related to her low credit score.
Neither of these scenarios would stem directly from the journalist's financial history, but would be directly triggered by a critical online post.
When most people talk about credit scores, they refer to a system in which a person's credit ranking is determined by how well she pays her bills and other debts. That is not the case in China's impending system of credit scoring.
In June 2014, the State Council, the administrator of the Chinese central government, issued a planning document that sets forth the creation of a nationwide "Social Credit System" to monitor and rate the "social credibility" of individuals, private companies, government agencies and non-governmental organizations based on information from various government agencies and private institutions. Such information could include criminal records, tax documents, employer evaluations, purchasing preferences and online activities. The document states that the system would evaluate the credit history and online activities of internet users and blacklist "individuals engaging in online swindles" and "rumormongering." The document also calls for adopting "measures against subjects listed on black lists," including restricting their online activities, barring sectoral access and reporting them to corresponding departments for exposure.
The stated goal of the Social Credit System is to reward trustworthiness and punish "breaking trust" throughout Chinese society. Trustworthiness, under the proposed system, would be decided by a government that has a history of censoring free speech.
"To link online rumor-mongering with one's social credit score can just be another way to punish government critics for speaking up," said New York-based blogger Wen Yunchao, who left China in 2012 after being repeatedly harassed by police over his online writing. Regarding the possible ramifications of the credit score proposal, he noted, "If you post 'rumor'--or negative information about the Chinese government--online, your credit score becomes lower as a result. It may affect you in real life, such as you have to pay a higher interest rate when applying for a house loan, or you can be barred from taking the civil service exam or bar exam or from working for the state media. Of course, the current system has not expanded to this degree yet, but from the design and implementation of the system, I see a high possibility of such linkage."
The planning document, which brims with political rhetoric, is unspecific about certain key issues, such as the grounds for blacklisting, how the government would collect the data and how the scores would be used by businesses and individuals. Given that China has about 1.4 billion people, the challenges to implementing such a system would be significant, but so too are its potential ramifications.
Since the document was drafted in 2014, various levels and departments of the Chinese government have been collectively pushing for its implementation, as illustrated by numerous articles published by state media and policy documents issued by the government. For example, in July 2016, the Communist Youth League, a youth organization of the Communist Party with more than 80 million members, promulgated the Youth Credit System Building Plan (2016-2020) which lays out specific objectives to be reached by 2020, measures of implementation and areas of focus. The eighth point of focus is "travel and tourism," and states, "encourage public cultural and sports facilities--including museums, public libraries and sports stadiums--and public parks, tourist sites, and other places to provide preferential treatment to trustworthy youth. Encourage transportation companies to provide ticket purchasing preferential policies to trustworthy youth. Encourage airlines to promote 'honest plane tickets,' providing trustworthy volunteers with 'credit purchasing,' priority services and other preferential measures." It is similar to the 2014 planning document in that it lacks an explanation for how youth credit scores will be determined.
Utilizing the Social Credit System would require accurately pinning down and linking every online activity to the person behind it, which could be done using an online identification technology called eID, a Chinese innovation, according to research by Chinese scholars.
An eID is a smart chip that can be loaded onto SIM cards, bank cards and identity cards and used to authenticate a user's identity online without revealing personal information, significantly lessening the potential for theft or alteration of the information, according to the Chinese government.
In recent years, the Chinese government has attempted to enforce real-name registration on different online platforms including social media, mobile apps, e-commerce websites and live video streaming, with varying success. The research arm of the Ministry of Public Security, which has been developing eID technology for several years, announced in June 2016 that it has "established the preliminary eID online identification infrastructure and service system." The use of eID, when fully implemented, will enable the Chinese government to know precisely who is doing what online.
In June 2015, the State Information Center launched a website called Credit China on which people can search companies' and individuals' credit histories. CPJ's test of the system shows that the current data set primarily involves business records, such as who has dodged taxes, broke business contracts, or failed to follow court rulings. The system is expected to soon include data on people and entities in other areas as well. In a February 2015 document, the Beijing government stated that establishing credit records for "news media personnel" is a priority during its process of implementing the central government's policy directives.
Journalists and observers familiar with the Chinese media have decried what they see as a system riddled with corruption, in which direct payment for positive news and extortion are rampant. Those who spoke with CPJ said a system that exposes dishonest behavior and highlights journalists who uphold media ethics is not intrinsically a bad idea, but that such a system could easily be manipulated to monitor journalists and force them into self-censorship.
The Chinese government has in recent years vigorously pursued efforts to curtail what it considers to be online rumor-mongering. In 2013, China's top court and prosecutor ruled that people who post libelous information viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times can be charged with defamation and jailed for up to three years. Sharing false information deemed to cause "serious social disorder" can result in a maximum five-year jail term.
Accusing journalists and bloggers of spreading rumors is a tactic often used to punish those who report critically on the Chinese government. Among many such cases, New Express reporter Liu Hu spent a year in jail after being detained in August 2013 for allegedly "fabricating and spreading rumors" while exposing the corrupt dealings of a government official on his Weibo account, China's Twitter-like social media platform. Wang Xiaolu, a financial reporter for the business magazine Caijing, was kept in police custody from August 2015 to February 2016 for "fabricating and spreading false information" after he reported on fluctuations in the Chinese financial market.
Journalists told CPJ the online credit system is a significant concern because it represents a new way of linking a person's speech with other aspects of their lives. Censorship in China already goes beyond the usual tactics of removing journalists' and writers' social media accounts, shutting down news websites, and jailing journalists; it also involves thwarting journalists' other daily activities, denying them career opportunities and banishing them from mainstream social engagements.
Wu Wei, known by his pen name Ye Du, is a writer and editor for the Independent Chinese PEN Center website, which reports on and documents human rights issues in China. Ye told CPJ that in addition to being frequently harassed by the police and detained for three months in 2012, he lost business opportunities due to his writing.
"In 2006, a lawyer in Guangzhou [province] wanted to partner with me to found an internet-based business project," Ye said. "After learning this, the police immediately went to his law firm to warn him, forced his landlord to evict him, and ordered his clients to sever ties with him. Under such pressure, he had no choice but to forgo the partnership with me." (CPJ was unable to independently verify this claim.) Ye also said that in 2011, around the time of his detention, the police told his neighbors in his apartment complex to cease contact with him, and he has been barred from purchasing train tickets and staying in hotels during sensitive events, such as the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
After spending a year in prison, enduring numerous interrogations, being pressured to give confessions on state television, being barred from applying for compensation for his wrongful imprisonment, and being censored on social media, Liu Hu found it difficult to find work. "The Chinese government ordered news organizations not to work with me," Liu said. "Reputable news outlets didn't want to employ me. After I freelanced for several news outlets, the Cyberspace Administration Office [China's internet regulator] ordered them not to publish my articles." The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a request for comment.
Zhao Sile, a mainland-based freelance journalist for Hong Kong publications, said the process of Chinese mainstream media outlets closing their doors to her has been gradual and quiet. "When I first started to write stories on human rights issues, I still had the opportunities to write for the Chinese mainstream media outlets on non-sensitive issues," Zhao said. "For example, for a while I wrote entertainment commentaries for Beijing News. Gradually, fewer and fewer people in the media circle would reach out to me about writing for them. No one told me to my face that they didn't want to keep in touch with me because of the human rights stories I wrote, but I'm sure I lost career opportunities and networks because of that." Zhao said she does not know whether those who chose not to contact her were under direct government pressure or did so voluntarily for fear of government reprisal.
Ye Du said the Social Credit System would further restrict activities of dissident writers like him. "When information about everyone and everything is online and connected, it would be much easier for the Chinese government to locate, surveil and control us," he said.
Zhao Sile said the credit system would have a chilling effect even on mainstream journalists who are critical of the government in private and occasionally express such opinions online, but hold back for fear of retaliation. "The Social Credit System is to make sure the government's 'enemies'--those whose opinions do not align with the government--have nowhere to hide," Zhao said. "You already see how people can withdraw from expressing critical opinions online because they are afraid that their accounts can be shut down. If the government can enforce real-name registration and closely link people's speech to their daily life and economic opportunities, it will be an extremely powerful tool to force people into self-censorship."
Other journalists, however, say they doubt the credit system will be put in place on the scale that is currently envisioned. Gu Xi, a former editor for the news website NetEase, said the Chinese government's primary source of legitimacy is China's economic growth, and it would not want to restrict business activities. "Lowering your credit score [due to your online writing] and then restricting your ability to buy or sell stuff online do no good to the Chinese government. The government collects taxes from business transactions. The economy is what worries the Chinese government the most, not the people who badmouth the government," Gu said.
Liu Hu also expressed doubts about how much citizens will buy into the government's credit score rating. "The Chinese government has increasingly targeted online rumor-mongering, but more and more people have come to the realization that the government is the bigger rumormonger, and to crack down on rumor-mongering is to suppress people from speaking the truth," he said.
If Liu is right, the prospective buyer of that secondhand bike might simply ignore the journalist's credit score due to their lack of faith in the government's rating system. Whether other individuals, institutions and agencies that rely upon credit scores would do the same remains to be seen.
Yaqiu Wang is a former Asia research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She has a Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University. Wang's articles on civil society and human rights in China have appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, China Change, and elsewhere.