Liu Hu spent two decades pushing hard at the bounds of censorship in China. An accomplished journalist, he used a blog to accuse high-level officials of corruption and wrongdoing and to publish details of misconduct by authorities.
In late 2013, he was arrested and accused of “fabricating and spreading rumours.” Late in 2016, in a separate case, a court found him guilty of defamation and ordered him to apologize on his social-media account, which at the time had 740,000 followers. If he was unwilling to do that, the court said, he could pay verdict in an authorized news outlet. Mr. Liu paid the court $115, an amount he says he believed would cover publication costs.
Then, he said, the judge told him the entire verdict needed to be published, at a cost of at least $1,330.
But in the midst of Mr. Liu’s attempt to seek legal redress early in 2017, he discovered that his life had abruptly changed: Without any notice, he had been caught up in the early reaches of a social-credit system that China is developing as a pervasive new tool for social control – one expected to one day tighten the state’s grip on its citizens. Critics have called it an Orwellian creation – a new kind of “thought police.”
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.
“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.
The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour….