Why are 13 million people in China banned from flights and fast trains?

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

David Kong was feeling crumpled after a recent business trip to Chongqing, which took more than 30 hours on a hard sleeper known locally in China as the "green-skin train" for its distinctive dark olive hue. The same journey would have taken just three hours by air, or about 12 hours by high speed train, but Kong could not take either as he was a "deadbeat".

As one of 13 million officially designated "discredited individuals", or laolai in Chinese, on a public database maintained by China's Supreme Court, 47-year-old Kong is banned from spending on "luxuries", whose definition includes air travel and fast trains.

For this class of people, who earned the label mostly for shirking their debts, daily life is a series of inflicted indignities - some big, some small - from not being able to rent a place to stay in their own name to being shunned by relatives and business associates. In some places, the telecommunication companies apply a special ringtone to the phone numbers of laolai as a warning.

"It's even worse than doing time because at least there's a limit to a prison sentence," Kong said in a phone interview. "Being on the list means that as long as you can't clear your debts in full, your name will always be there."

Case in point, his business associates had found out about his status not from the database but from picking him up at the railway station. In China, only those who cannot afford the high-speed train take the slow train.

In order for him to clear his debts, Kong argues, he needs to be able to succeed at his new business, but that is hard to do if prospective partners and customers shun him because of his official status as a "deadbeat". Kong said he survives on as little as 500 yuan (S$100) a month, living on the outskirts of Beijing.

His creditors have little sympathy, saying that he tried every effort to get out of repaying his debts. If he had money to buy an airline ticket, they told the Post, he should pay that back to the ones he owed.

Discredited individuals have been barred from taking a total of 17.5 million flights and 5.5 million high-speed train trips as of the end of 2018, according to the latest annual report by the National Public Credit Information Centre.

The list of "discredited individuals" was introduced in 2013, months before the State Council unveiled a plan in 2014 to build a social credit system by 2020, and is in line with the plan's goal of influencing people into behaving by penalising bad behaviour and rewarding for good deeds.

For Kong, his slide into official "untrustworthiness" happened in 2015, three years after his book publishing venture failed. He had borrowed 1.6 million yuan (US$238,000) and said he had no means to pay it back.

While Kong said his business had failed despite his best efforts, creditors interviewed by the Post paint a different picture. One creditor said the company was a sham from the beginning, with fabricated expenditure and cooked books. Kong said in response that the company had operated in a transparent and open manner.

Ironically, Kong supports a more comprehensive system that takes into account factors beyond one's economic or financial status, such as volunteering or blood donation. "Right now, it's a broad sword. As long as I'm insolvent, then I'm an unpardonable devil."

Kong said he is working hard on his own "comeback story".

"I will grind my teeth and quietly tolerate it all," he said. "One day when I finally get clean from all my debt, I hope people will point to me and say 'this guy isn't bad after all'".

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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