China to rank all citizens with 'social credit' score

Published: Apr. 24, 2018 at 3:07 PM EDT
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When Liu Hu recently tried to book a flight, he was told he was banned from flying because he was on the list of untrustworthy people. Liu is a journalist who was ordered by a court to apologize for a series of tweets he wrote and was then told his apology was insincere.

"I can't buy property. My child can't go to a private school," Liu said. "You feel you're being controlled by the list all the time."

The list is now getting longer, as every Chinese citizen is being assigned a social credit score-- a fluctuating rating based on a range of behaviors. It's believed the community service and buying Chinese-made products can raise your score. Fraud, tax evasion and smoking in nonsmoking areas can drop it. If a score gets too low, a person can be banned from buying plane and train tickets, real estate, cars and even high-speed internet.

"It's a good thing," one woman said. "There should be punishment for people who can't behave."

China's growing network of surveillance cameras makes all of this possible. The country already has an estimated 176 million cameras. It plans to have more than 600 million installed by 2020.

"It can recognize more than 4,000 vehicles," Xu Li said.

Xu is the CEO of SenseTime, one of China's most successful artificial intelligence companies. It has created smart cameras for the government that can help catch criminals but they can also track average citizens.

Reporter: This knows every person, every bike, every car, every bus that goes through the frame?

Xu Li: Yeah... we can tell whether it is an adult, a child, male or female.

In several big cities in China, including Shanghai, the government is even tracking jaywalkers. Cameras record them going through intersections, zero in on their face and then publicly shame them on nearby video screens.

"I think the expectations are that the government will have access to just about everything you do," said Ken Dewoskin, who has studies China's economic and political culture for more than three decades.

Dewoskin says how the new scoring system truly works is kept secret and could be easily abused by the government.

Reporter: How far into people's daily mundane activities does this go?

Ken Dewoskin: Well, I think that the government and the people running the plan would like it to go as deeply as possible... to determine how to allocate benefits and also how to impact and shape their behavior.

There are upsides if the Chinese government considers you "trustworthy." Those people can get discounts on energy bills, better interest rates at banks and China's largest online dating site reportedly even boosts the profiles of people with good social credit scores.