China bars millions from travel for ‘social credit’ offenses

In this March 3, 2018, photo, people check on travel packages offered by travel agencies during the Guangzhou International Travel Fair in Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province. (AP)
Updated 23 February 2019

China bars millions from travel for ‘social credit’ offenses

  • Human rights activists say “social credit” is too rigid and might unfairly label people as untrustworthy without telling them they have lost status or how to restore it

BEIJING: Skipped paying a fine in China? Then forget about buying an airline ticket.
Would-be air travelers were blocked from buying tickets 17.5 million times last year for “social credit” offenses including unpaid taxes and fines under a controversial system the ruling Communist Party says will improve public behavior.
Others were barred 5.5 million times from buying train tickets, according to the National Public Credit Information Center. In an annual report, it said 128 people were blocked from leaving China due to unpaid taxes.
The ruling party says “social credit” penalties and rewards will improve order in a fast-changing society after three decades of economic reform have shaken up social structures. Markets are rife with counterfeit goods and fraud. The system is part of efforts by President Xi Jinping’s government to use technology ranging from data processing to genetic sequencing and facial recognition to tighten control.
Authorities have experimented with “social credit” since 2014 in areas across China. Points are deducted for breaking the law or, in some areas, offenses as minor as walking a dog without a leash.
Human rights activists say “social credit” is too rigid and might unfairly label people as untrustworthy without telling them they have lost status or how to restore it.
US Vice President Mike Pence criticized it in October as “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”
The ruling party wants a nationwide system by 2020 but has yet to say how it will operate. Possible penalties include restrictions on travel, business and access to education. A slogan repeated in state media says, “Once you lose trust, you will face restrictions everywhere.”
Companies on the blacklist can lose government contracts or access to bank loans or be barred from issuing bonds or importing goods.
Offenses penalized under “social credit” last year included false advertising or violating drug safety rules, the government information center said. Individuals were blocked 290,000 times from taking senior management jobs or acting as a company’s legal representative.
Since the launch of such “joint punishment,” the system has caused 3.5 million people to “voluntarily fulfill their legal obligations,” the Information Center said. It said that included 37 people who paid a total of 150 million yuan ($22 million) in overdue fines or confiscations.
The report gave no details of how many people live in areas with “social credit” systems.
“Social credit” is one facet of efforts by the ruling party to take advantage of increased computing power, artificial intelligence and other technology to track and control the Chinese public.
The police ministry launched an initiative dubbed “Golden Shield” in 2000 to build a nationwide digital network to track individuals.
Human rights activists say people in Muslim and other ethnic minority areas have been compelled to give blood samples for a genetic database. Those systems rely on foreign technology. That has prompted criticism that US and European suppliers might be enabling human rights abuses.
This week, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. said it no longer would sell or service genetic sequencers in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang in the northwest following complaints they were used for surveillance.
As many as 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang are detained in political education camps, according to US officials and United Nations experts. The government says those camps are vocational training centers designed to rid the region of extremism.


Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

Updated 19 August 2019

Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

  • Then Russian Navy Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko wrote the letter when he was a 36-year-old aboard the Sulak
ANCHORAGE, Alaska: A man discovered a 50-year-old letter in a bottle from the Russian Navy on the shores of western Alaska.
Tyler Ivanoff found the handwritten Russian letter early this month while gathering firewood near Shishmaref about 600 miles (966 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, television station KTUU reported.
“I was just looking for firewood when I found the bottle,” Tyler Ivanoff said. “When I found the bottle, I had to use a screwdriver to get the message out.”
Ivanoff shared his discovery on Facebook where Russian speakers translated the message to be a greeting from a Cold War Russian sailor dated June 20, 1969. The message included an address and a request for a response from the person who finds it.
Reporters from the state-owned Russian media network, Russia-1, tracked down the original writer, Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko, KTUU reported.
He was skeptical he wrote the note until he saw his signature on the bottom.
“There — exactly!” he exclaimed.
The message was sent while the then 36-year-old was aboard the Sulak, Botsanenko said. Botsanenko shed tears when the Russian television reporter told him the Sulak was sold for scrap in the 1990s.
Botsanenko also showed the reporter some souvenirs from his time on the ship, including the autograph of the wife of a famous Russian spy and Japanese liquor bottles, the latter kept over his wife’s protests.
Ivanoff’s discovery of the bottle was first reported by Nome radio station KNOM.