Fears for privacy in anti-corruption drive

Proposals for a 'social credit code' to keep track of property ownership will provide easy access to individuals' personal data, critics warn

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 5:03am

Beijing appears to be stepping up its commitment to fighting corruption by proposing a unified "social credit code" system based on all residents' ID numbers, and by putting a new real estate registry on its agenda.

Ma Kai, the secretary general of the State Council, said during the first session of the annual legislative meeting on Sunday that the main objective for such a unified system would be used to prevent people from circumventing laws that restricted real estate ownership, for example by illegally registering multiple ID numbers.

The social credit code system would be based on national ID card numbers and on codes assigned to organisations and institutions.

"The government needs to take the lead in upholding the authority of the constitution, to act lawfully, and to use legal measures to deepen reform, promote development and maintain stability," Ma said.

However, sceptics say the system could be used as a "Big Brother" monitoring tool, as it would collect a large amount of a personal data on individuals.

Professor Zhang Ming , who teaches political science at Renmin University, conceded that the unified social credit code system was a fundamental requirement for a transparent government, but he hoped it would not be abused.

"I'm more worried about whether the government will use the system to watch our citizens," Zhang said.

"They could easily access personal information with this system."

However, Zhu Lijia , a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the plan could ensure that the government is more open and transparent, adding that neither ordinary citizens nor party officials would be able to hide their incomes or assets under such a unified national system.

"Neither real estate transaction histories nor the family wealth of officials could be hidden under the system, which is a positive sign as the new leaders want to build a service-oriented government," Zhu said.

Public outrage at opaque government operations, as well as at the hidden wealth of party officials, has been simmering in China for some time, and a number of analysts believe it threatens social stability.

A recent case involved Gong Aiai , a former bank official from Shaanxi province. Gong was dubbed "House Sister" after she was accused of acquiring 41 homes in Beijing by using several resident IDs, even though each person is legally allowed to have just one.

A unified real estate registry was first proposed in 2007, when the party and state legalised private property. And a unified social credit code system has been on the backburner since it was first discussed in 2010, at a national corruption-prevention meeting.

Some analysts speculate that reform efforts have been slow because some officials are worried about having to disclose their property publicly.

"Having all of the information registered under a single system is dangerous for corrupt officials, as many of them have properties in different provinces, and the party's disciplinary authorities have had a hard time tracking them," Zhang said.

"Public disclosure of property is really difficult. … This could be the time for the government to show its sincerity in fighting corruption."