In China’s Hebei province, a red circle sweeps out a radius on a map, like a naval radar scanning for enemy ships.
It is the latest tool to be piloted as part of China’s Social Credit System that is geared at monitoring the behaviour of the Asian superpower’s 1.4 billion citizens and separating the trustworthy from the disobedient.
Nicknamed the Deadbeat Map, the applet is an add-on to Chinese social media platform WeChat. It allows users to pinpoint the location of those within a 500-metre radius who have failed to pay their debts.
It is the latest court-mandated escalation in naming and shaming “laolai” – a derogatory term for dishonest debtors who are placed on a financial blacklist.
Tapping on a person marked on the map reveals their personal information, including their full name, court case number and the reason they have been labelled untrustworthy. Identity card numbers and home addresses are also partially shown.
The map turns red to mark a higher concentration of dishonest debtors, but downgrades to orange, yellow and blue if there are fewer.
David Zhou, 60, a resident of Shijiazhuang city in north-eastern Hebei province, said the map appeared to show registered home addresses of “swindlers” or “fraudsters”, not their live locations.
When he stepped out for lunch recently, he saw the radar in the applet turn red and some 28 people identified in his vicinity.
“When everyday people see this, the level of their insecurity would definitely increase,” he said.
Hebei’s Higher People’s Court did not respond to emails and phone calls from the ABC, but state-run media outlet China Daily quoted a court spokesman as saying it was part of the court’s measures “to enforce [their] rulings and create a socially credible environment”.
WeChat founder Tencent said in a statement that “user privacy and data security are our top priorities” and that users could easily report privacy concerns.
It pointed out that the map was a program developed by a third party.
“All developers of mini programs are required to obtain the same permissions from users to access location information and must also provide an explanation of how that information would be used,” it said.
‘Society becomes a virtual prison’
Partially borne out of the lack of credit history and social trust, the broader SCS is aiming to monitor the behaviour of all of China’s citizens nationwide by 2020.
It has so far been rolled out as a series of pilot projects across the nation and in various provinces.
One private credit system using data from Alibaba rates people not only on their financial capacity but also on their consumer choices.
The example Sesame Credit technology director Li Yingyun gave Chinese media is that a person who buys nappies regularly is responsible, while someone who plays video games all day would be considered lazy.
Being placed on a local blacklist can also place citizens under wide-ranging national restrictions.
More than 18 million people have been banned from flying, and 5.5 million are unable to buy high-speed rail tickets, according to China’s enforcement information disclosure website.
Delia Lin, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, said the “deadbeat map” marked an unsurprising escalation under China’s developing social credit system.
“This is inconceivable in the Western society, because this is absolutely a violation of a person’s privacy,” Dr Lin said.
But the courts are treating it as a public service, she said, by warning potential victims to avoid making loans to unreliable people.
Some Weibo users welcomed the app and wanted it rolled out across China to deal with those who shirked on repayments.
Dr Lin said the widespread use of WeChat in China and the potential for a nationwide “deadbeat map” could change the social mentality.
“This is dangerous – it encourages people to take the law into their own hands,” she said.
“It encourages people to treat those people as sub-human.”
Dr Lin said while the blacklist was meant to identify only those who were capable of repaying debts and refused to, she was sceptical about how that system worked.
“The people who cannot pay their debt because they are too poor, then who will be subject to this kind surveillance and this kind of public shaming,” she said.
“Basically, society becomes a virtual prison – instead of going to jail, those people’s personal lives, and even their children’s personal lives, are being affected.”
Shame as alternative justice
China’s highest court last year encouraged lower courts to find new and creative ways to punish people who borrowed beyond their means.
In eastern China’s Anhui province, debtors’ photographs, names, ID numbers and the amount they owed flashed across billboards and giant screens in public squares on International Workers’ Day last May.
In south-western Sichuan, one cinema screened a so-called “reel of shame” showing the details of business executives who defaulted on their debts as a preview to the main feature.
In some parts of China, courts have also worked with tech companies to develop a special ringtone – if you ring a number linked to a dishonest debtor, you’ll be warned with a siren and told to be careful in your business dealings with them.
Peter Cai, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute, said in China, the ability of courts to enforce judgments was “pretty weak”.
“A lot of the court judgments are not enforced,” he said.
“By going through social media channels … you try to shame people into actually paying their debt.”
But Mr Cai pointed out that reports of China’s social credit system often portrayed it as more advanced and widespread than it really was, but it sometimes doubled as a “public education tool”.
“They try to shame the offender and also use it as a bit of a deterrent device to try to shape the social behaviour,” he said.