By JOE McDONALD
BEIJING (AP) — 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.
U.S. 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 $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 U.S. and European suppliers might be enabling human rights abuses.
Last 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 U.S. officials and United Nations experts. The government says those camps are vocational training centers designed to rid the region of extremism.