Travel is a privilege, not a right — at least according to the Chinese government. The country’s expansive social credit system has been used as a justification to ban a substantial number, 15.39 million by the latest count, from traveling by air or high-speed rail.
It isn’t just the government that’s rolling out these “credit” regimes, tech giants Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group, via its affiliate Ant Financial, have both released their own propriety credit systems integrated into their digital ecosystems, which serve a similar purpose to a credit score in the U.S. While these digital systems are designed to have substantial consumer applications in regards to finance, they have some major implications for travel.
How the social credit system works
The most influential of these frameworks is clearly the Chinese government’s social credit system. In some respects, it is an extension of the government’s previous travel blacklist that banned citizens from traveling abroad after reports of what was deemed “uncivilized behavior” overseas.
Punishable behavior under the system is wide-ranging and includes posting “fake news,” violating traffic laws, accepting bribes, smoking in non-smoking areas, buying too many video games, and defaulting on debt. Potential punishment includes travel restrictions, slower internet, reduced access to schools, job restrictions, hotel booking restrictions, and pet ownership. These restrictions even extend to the children of individuals deemed “untrustworthy.”
The system seeks to both name and shame these individuals, but also inflict punishment. Hou Yunchung, former deputy director of the development research center of China’s State Council, has argued that the goal of the system was to make “discredited people become bankrupt.”
According the state-run mouthpiece the Global Times, 11.14 million Chinese citizens have been banned from flights and 4.25 million from the high-speed rail as of the end of April. The banned individuals are ostensibly those that have engaged in financially unscrupulous behavior or have been determined to be “untrustworthy.”
The travel industry won’t know the full impact of the government system as it won’t be fully rolled out until 2020. The overall flow of outbound travel from China likely won’t be significantly impacted in volume. However, the system is yet another confirmation of the social status that both Chinese consumers and the government have assigned to travel.
Social credit goes beyond individuals
Social credit systems in China aren’t only used to evaluate tourists. In Xiamen, a city in southeastern Fujian Province, there is a credit tourism management system used to judge the quality of tour operators, hotels, and restaurants. According to state-run news outlet Xinhua, the system has 74,000 pieces of information on tour guides and 6,400 pieces of information on tourism companies in the city.
And foreign companies aren’t exempt from government scrutiny in the age of social credit scores. Over the last year, several airlines and hotels, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Qantas and Marriott International, have faced official criticism for listing Taiwan as a country instead of as a province of China on their websites, with some arguing this is an extension of China’s social credit framework extending to foreign companies.
How private sector credit scores can affect travel
It’s not just the state that’s attempting to develop these credit systems. In fact, the frameworks set up by private companies may have a more tangible, direct impact on outbound Chinese tourism.
Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit framework is similar to a financial credit score in the U.S. The platform, while in part attempting to promote similarly “trustworthy” behavior as the government’s system, is primarily consumer-oriented as opposed to political. The idea is to determine how trustworthy a consumer is to rent an apartment or access credit, with users are assigned scores ranging from 350 to 950.
Even so, the system, known as Zhima or Sesame Credit, recently came under fire for what many Chinese users saw as an exploitative attempt to share the Alipay data with third parties. Moreover, there are concerns that Ant Financial is sharing this information with the Chinese government and that it utilizes information from Chinese courts to deduct points from an individual’s social credit rating, though the company denied such claims.
While it is primarily for domestic use, there are also efforts to integrate the rating system into the travel space. Chinese citizens have relatively few options for visa-free destinations, especially among Western countries. Visa applications are often accompanied by a financial check and travelers may be rejected for having insufficient finances.
Alibaba’s Sesame Credit system has already been cleared by Canadian authorities for use in the visa application process. In lieu of a full financial check, Canada has announced that Chinese citizens with Sesame Credit scores above 700 will not need to submit bank statements to apply for a visa.
Essentially, Sesame Credit can be used to vet Chinese tourists, and more destinations will likely consider using the rating for visa applications. This in turn will likely make use of Alipay a more attractive option for Chinese tourists. Not only will Alipay allow tourists to make cashless purchases more easily while traveling, but the service could make it easier to get into destinations more easily.