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Can’t Enter Uni Because of Daddy’s Bad Social Credit – The Blacklist Story That’s Got Weibo Talking

When one bad social credit listing affects the entire family.

Manya Koetse

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The story of a Chinese student who got admitted to a renowned university and was then denied access because of his father’s bad social credit has got Chinese social media talking.

Getting access to a top university is not easy in China’s fiercely competitive education environment. For one student from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, the results of his gaokao (national university entrance exams) were so good that he received the happy news that he was accepted into one of these renowned universities in Beijing.

Unfortunately for him, that news was later followed up with an update that he could not be accepted due to his father’s bad social credit standing.

The story, which was widely covered by Chinese state media (including the English-language CGTN), received much attention on Chinese social media this week.

The young man’s father, named only as ‘Mr. Rao’ (饶先生), ended up with a bad credit standing after owing a debt of 200,000 RMB (±US$29,900) to a local bank for more than two years. Since Rao did not succeed in paying off his debt after warnings given, he was informed by a local court that he had ended up on a so-called “lose trust list” or “black list” (失信名单/失信黑名单).

Towards a More Credit-Based Society

In 2014, China’s government first announced plans of its “Social Credit System” (社会信用体系) that focuses on accumulating and integrating information, and will create measures that encourage ‘trustworthy behavior’ and punishes those who are not ‘trustworthy.’

The system is planned to go national by 2020, and is currently implemented in various regions across the country.

However, the public black list was introduced before this time, with Chinese courts in 2013 starting to publicly give out the names online of people who have not complied with court orders.

Additionally, In 2006, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) also already began operating its own independent Credit Reference Center tasked with managing a national commercial and consumer credit reporting system. With the recent launch of the so-called ‘trust alliance’ (信联), a new unified platform that has access to an enormous number of personal credit data, China’s credit-based society has taken another leap – with state level and commercial organizations joining forces in further developing China’s credit systems.

In recent (English-language) media reports, the lines are often blurred between the Social Credit system and a number of private programs, including the Sesame Credit program. These misunderstandings partly come from the fact that both the government’s plans on introducing their ‘Social Credit System’ (社会信用体系) and the Central Bank’s endeavors to build a stronger personal credit industry (个人征信行业) were major developments in the period from 2013-2015 up to the present. Together with the 2013 judicial online blacklist, these policies and programs all built on a stronger credit-based society that governs both economic and social areas.

The ‘system’ (there is not one system in place yet) works through rewards and punishment mechanisms. In the city of Zhuhai, for example, individuals or companies with good credit are put on a “red list” which potentially means they could be praised online (Zhuhai credit website) or given rewards, whereas those put on the “black list” (f.e. due to serious misbehavior or promise-breaching) will be subject to various restrictions (Zhang & Zhang 2016, 157).

Those restrictions could include a halt on loans or a national ban from traveling by air or train. Since private programs and institutions also have access to the public blacklists, one company or person’s bad credit status can affect their status among various platforms and for various institutions – and thus, potentially, could also influence their children’s access to schools and universities.

A Controversial Measure

The recent story of Rao’s son paying the price for this father’s bad credit listing has stirred controversy online over children being affected by their parents’ bad credit listing.

One Weibo news thread on the issue received nearly 30,000 comments.

One of the most popular remarks on the story said: “If it is okay to treat those who are associated with an offender as guilty (连坐), then it’s time to punish the sons and daughters of corrupt officials, too.”

“A father’s bad credit has nothing to do with the children!”, another Weibo user said.

But another popular comment called the measure “effective,” with others agreeing: “If he waited two years to pay off his debt, he was basically asking to be on the blacklist. That his bad credit influences his child’s education is just to reap what one has sown.”

Various Chinese media, including financial newspaper Caijing, report that the boy’s father was previously warned by the local court that his bad credit standing could potentially have consequences for his children too, but that he still did not comply with court orders to pay back his loans.

Since Rao’s son has been denied access to the university as long as his father has a bad credit standing, Rao has allegedly paid back the loan and has asked the local court to be removed from the blacklist.

There are also commenters on Weibo, such as @闪电McQueen, who say the university’s actions are nothing newsworthy: “This is just the [political] examination of people’s records, it’s not specifically about the black list, it’s common knowledge, let’s not make it all about that black list.”

This commenter’s reaction reiterates the idea that the social credit system and black list system is actually not that new, as Rogier Creemers has previously described in Foreign Policy (2016): “The Chinese Communist Party government has always sought to keep tabs on its citizens, for instance through the “personal file” (dang’an) system of a few decades ago.”

Another person on Weibo says: “The people who are saying the child is the victim here should also know that people who end up on the blacklist are generally not people without money, their kids have enough opportunities, it’s just that if they owe money [to the bank], paying the tuition fee for their kids would become a problem.”

As for Rao’s son, whether or not he will be able to start at his new university in Beijing in the new semester, now that his dad has paid off debts, is yet unclear. Some commenters say it would be better if he didn’t: “Who wants to go to a university who does this anyway?”

UPDATE (7.16.18): Jeremy Daum at the ever-insighful China Law Translate blog has further looked into this case and found that the institution in this article, which has not been named in Chinese media, is most probably a private academy. He was also able to verify that this concerns a real story with no fake names used – he was able track Rao down in the public blacklist.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

References

Creemers, Rogier; Peter Marris; Samantha Hoffman; Pamela Kyle Crossley. 2016. “What Could China’s ‘Social Credit System’ Mean for its Citizens?” Foreign Policy, Aug 15
http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/15/what-could-chinas-social-credit-system-mean-for-its-citizens/ [15.7.18].

Zhang, Keting, and Fang Zhang. 201. “Report on the Construction of the Social Credit System in China’s Special Economic Zones.” In: Yitao Tao and Yiming Yuan (eds), Annual Report on the Development of China’s Special Economic Zones (2016): Blue Book of China’s Special Economic Zones, 153-171. Singapore: Social Science Academic Press.

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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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5 Comments

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  1. Avatar

    Bruce Humes

    July 17, 2018 at 8:51 am

    Good piece! Clarifies where the Social Credit System is going. Sounds like a return to “class struggle” (阶级斗争) in vogue 1949-1978. During that period, children’s place in society was determined by their parents’class, i.e., it was inherited, not based on the child’s behavior. This was known as 出身论, a Marxist concept. Now, in 2018, children’s opportunities for social advancement are determined by their parents’ behavior. This a step backwards for Chinesr society.

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China Books & Literature

Nineteen Eighty-Four Turns 70: Orwellian China and Orwell in China

“We still need independent, courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

Manya Koetse

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George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four turned seventy this week. For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that the modern classic, describing a nightmarish totalitarian state, is well-read within the People’s Republic of China and is not banned from its bookstores.

“Big Brother is Watching You” is the sentence that people around the world have come to know through the novel 1984 or Nineteen Eighty-Four, that turned 70 this week.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about a nightmare future in the year 1984. It takes place in a totalitarian state where the Party is central to people’s everyday lives and where propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, and manipulation of the past are ubiquitous.

The book revolves around Winston Smith, a citizen of London, Oceania, who works at Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and who secretly hates the society he lives in with its all-controlling Party, the ‘Big Brother’ leader, and the Thought Police.

Smith is critical of the workings of the Party and the lies it imposes, which then pass into history and become ‘truth’; as the Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

 

“Orwellian China”

 

There is probably no other country in the world that has been described as “Orwellian” in English-language media as often as China has over the past few years. According to Google Trends, ‘China’ currently is one of the most related topics people in the US are searching for when they type in the word ‘Orwellian’ on the search engine.

The topic recently most associated with Orwell’s novel is that of China’s Social Credit System. In October of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence addressed China’s nascent Social Credit System in a speech on China, calling it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” (Whitehouse.gov).

Since then, George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been used more often to describe developments in China.

‘Orwellian’ and ‘China’ come up with more than 28,000 results in Google News alone, the term often being used with any PRC news that relates to technology, government control, and propaganda.

Ironically, many of the news reports addressing ‘Orwellian China’ and its Social Credit System (SCS) are, in the Orwellian tradition, spreading misinformation themselves, conflating different issues or presenting speculation as fact – see some examples of speculative reporting on the SCS in this list.

But also when reporting on China’s growing mass camera surveillance, the Xinjiang internment camps, the launch of the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ [Xuexi Qiangguo] app, or the increasing use of facial recognition, the comparison to George Orwell’s 1949 classic is everywhere in the English language media world today.

 

一九八四: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in China

 

For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually not censored or banned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Since the first PRC edition of the novel was published in 1979, it has become a famous and well-read work that is available for purchase in Chinese or English in all big bookstores in Chinese cities or online via e-commerce sites as Taobao.com.

The famous sentence “Big Brother is Watching You” translates to “Lǎo dàgē zài zhùshìzhe nǐ” (“老大哥在注视着你”) in Mandarin, and often pops up on social media, together with terms such as “doublethink” (shuāngchóng sīxiǎng, 双重思想) or “Thought Police” (sīxiǎng jǐngchá 思想警察).

On Douban, an influential web portal that allows users to rate and review books, films, etc, various editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four (most of them translated by Dong Leshan 董乐山) have been rated with a 9.3 or higher by thousands of web users.

Reading 1984, by Weibo user @耀离Pinus.

“I like this book, it’s just a bit too dark for me,” some reviewers write, with others just saying the book is “very scary,” or seeing some resemblance with the classic works of Chinese authors such as Wang Xiaobo or Lu Xun.

WeChat blog Vopoenix recently stressed the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing that the novel is not anti-socialism per se: “What Orwell really opposes is fascism, totalitarianism, and nationalism (..), what he really supports is political democracy and social justice.”

70 years later, totalitarianism still has not disappeared, the blog writes: “(..) instead, it has evolved with the times in a more secret way (..). We still need independent, keen and courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

One Douban reviewer writes about their thoughts after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying: “What scares me is that sometimes people will ridicule North Korea for being so shut off from the world, but what about us? We’re like frogs at the bottom of a well, but the scary thing is, we don’t even know we’re in the well.”

 

“Just a work of fiction to Chinese”?

 

Public sentiments about the 70-year-old Nineteen Eighty-Four novel bearing a resemblance to (present-day) China are seemingly growing stronger on Chinese social media recently. The book appears in online comments and discussions on a daily basis.

“I finished reading the book today,” one Weibo commenter writes: “The biggest thought I had is: this book is very suitable for Chinese people to read.”

“I can now imagine what those ten years were like,” one Douban user posts, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first satirical book I’ve read that comes close to the situation in China. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean,” another reader writes.

Different from English-language (social) media, Chinese commenters are not mentioning the book in relation to the country’s Social Credit System at all, but in relation to the heightened censorship that China has recently been seeing in light of the China-US trade war, the Tiananmen anniversary, and the Hong Kong protests.

One Weibo blogger writing a critique about the growing “bizarreness” of the “elephant in the room” (referring to all those big China-related issues that cannot be discussed on social media due to censorship) attracted the attention of Chinese netizens earlier this week (see the full translation of post here).

Many commenters spoke about the Weibo post in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially when the post addressing the censorship was censored itself.

Some commenters are speculating that Orwell’s novel might one day be banned in China.

Others also wrote that it seemed “like a miracle” that the book was not banned in China, and some suggested it might still happen in the future.

“It will be forbidden very soon,” one Weibo commenter speculates.

“The future is becoming more difficult, really,” one netizen recently wrote: “It’s nearing 1984 (一九八四), and [we] might not be able to see it later.”

But, in Chinese online media, Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means only mentioned in relation to China. There are also those blogs or news articles that mention the Orwellian aspects of the story of Edward Snowden, or connect Orwell to Trump’s America.

In late 2018, state tabloid Global Times denounced the ubiquitous Western media reports on “Orwellian China.” Author Yu Jincui wrote:

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic to Westerners, but it is just a work of fiction to Chinese and they are fed up with Orwellian style preaching from Western elites. This kind of conversation will lead nowhere.”

But many netizens do not agree with the fictional part. “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a work of fiction, it is a record of our future,” one Weibo user writes.

“Is Big Brother watching me?” others wonder.

“The first time I read it, I just read it,” another Douban user says: “The second time I read it, I really started to understand. Here’s to George Orwell!”

Despite all speculation on social media, there are no indications that Nineteen Eighty-Four will be banned from China any time soon.

For now, even 70 years after its first publication and 40 years after its first Chinese translation, readers in the People’s Republic can continue to devour and discuss Orwell’s classic work and the mirror it holds up to present-day China, America, Europe, and the world today.

By Manya Koetse

PS: Some recommended reading on Social Credit in English:

* Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.

* Dai, Xin. 2018. “Toward a Reputation State: The Social Credit System Project of China.” June 10, available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3193577 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193577.

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].

* Horsley, Jamie. 2018. “China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real.” Foreign Policy, Nov 16 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/16/chinas-orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [10.6.19].

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media.” What’s on Weibo, Oct 30 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/insights-into-the-social-credit-system-on-chinese-online-media-and-stark-contrasts-to-western-media-approaches/

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks.” What’s on Weibo, May 27 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/open-sesame-social-credit-in-china-as-gate-to-punitive-measures-and-personal-perks/.

* Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].

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China Insight

Chinese Blogger Addresses Weibo’s “Elephant in the Room”

A recent noteworthy Weibo post says intellectual discussions are dying on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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A recent popular post on Weibo suggests that intellectual discussions are dying on Weibo and that Chinese web users can no longer ignore ‘the elephant in the room,’ triggering discussions on the status quo of social media in China.

Recently, a post by one popular Weibo blogger has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens.

On June 6, blogger ‘V2’ [alias], who often changes Weibo accounts, wrote about censorship on Chinese social media and ‘the elephant in the room.’

The post started making its rounds this week shortly after a severe crackdown on Chinese social media during the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, while protests in Hong Kong over the extradition bill were also taking off.

The poster, who has over 12270 fans on Weibo, wrote the following post [translation by What’s on Weibo]:

 

The intellectual density on Weibo is getting lower and lower. Scrolling through my timeline has already become somewhat worthless. One reason for that is temporary. This month they started to close down on overseas IP addresses, for example.

Another reason is more long term. Intellectuals around the world are increasingly focusing on China issues, from international relations scholars to economists to lawyers. There are already enough discussions about China to fill entire libraries with, and it’s rapidly increasing; this period is a happy time for China watchers, with new reports and comments coming out every day.

But all these hot issues (including the Belt & Road Initiative, the modernization of the army, the future of Taiwan, IP theft, and the China-US trade war) are like an elephant in the room on Weibo.

We can’t watch them, we can’t discuss them. But because this elephant is getting bigger and bigger, ignoring its presence in this room is getting increasingly strange.

This strange feeling reached a peak these days [addressing June 4th, the commemoration of Tiananmen]. The whole world was discussing China, but China was like a tranquil lake. The top trending topic here was Produce Camp 2019 [a Chinese reality show]. Some people, including me, were silenced, while the rest was excited to talk about celebrities smoking, getting married, getting divorced or cheating – pretending that these topics are really worth discussing.

The truth is, that these are the only topics that are allowed to be discussed.

Reviewing the parallel world of millions of people, Weibo has become a crowded place within a tiny snail shell.”

 

Since its publication on June 6th, this post received more than 22700 shares, 15500 likes, and hundreds of comments, with the post especially gaining traction since June 10.

 

I want to see more, I want to think more, I want to express more.

 

Among hundreds of commenters, many people agreed with ‘V2,’ writing: “Even the early rulers in Rome knew that if they’d give the people enough bread to eat and the entertainment of an arena, they wouldn’t be bothered about the rest.”

Others commented: “Actually, people do want to discuss these issues, but how can we when the news sources are blocked?”

“This has really become more of an entertainment app. It’s no longer a place to share news and knowledge, nor a place for open debate.”

“I want to go to a wider place, I want to access more information, I want to see more, I want to think more, I want to express more,” one commenter from Beijing writes.

“Not everything you read outside of the wall [Great Firewall] is true and Western media have been demonizing us for quite some time. But inside the wall, young people only pay attention to who is marrying who and who is divorcing now and this kind of entertainment news. They are numb; the intellect of the people is not developing.”

“We’re pretending everything is going well,” another person says: “and [we’re] creating a utopia that is isolated from the world.”

 

Just because it doesn’t exist on Weibo, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

 

But some also disagreed with the critical post.

“Why don’t you see that Weibo is just a small part of life?”, one commenter writes: “Just because it doesn’t exist on Weibo, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Don’t Chinese intellectuals pay attention to the issues you just mentioned? Weibo’s audience is really wide, but it is also quite narrow.”

Other commenters also suggest that the author’s expectations of Weibo are “too high”:

“Weibo was meant for entertainment, it’s not necessarily a news platform. The news about Hong Kong [protests] was reported on various websites. What is this blogger talking about, and then all these strange comments? As if we’re just foolishly spending our days on Weibo without having any other information channels; as if all the people in this country are locked in a dark room? Stupid.”

“It’s not the room that’s dark,” one person writes: “It’s the people who are blind.”

 

Viewing the sky from the bottom of the well.

 

There are also commenters who defend the strict control of Chinese social media, writing: “China has the largest population in the world. Think about it. Public opinion is really important. Isn’t a stable popular sentiment more important than confronting people with terrible incidents? If 1.3 billion people don’t trust their government, what kind of chaos do you think the country will end up in?”

Others jokingly say: “You can discuss these taboo topics all you want, I still am more interested in the latest celebrity divorce!”

One Weibo commenter uses a Chinese idiom to convey his thoughts, writing: “I’m just viewing the sky from the bottom of the well here.”

Despite the critique of the blogger on the decline of more intellectual discussions on Weibo, their post shows that there still seems to space for some deeper discussions on Weibo. At the time of writing, the post has attracted over 4000 comments and counting.

Update June 11, 2019:

As some commenters in the thread already feared, this post has now been deleted.

By Manya Koetse

Featured image by 广博郝. Featured image not related to the blogger in this article.

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