Chinese authorities appear to be ramping up a practice that shames debtors into paying back the state by projecting their names and photographs onto the big screen ahead of popular films.
- People who owed money to the state were shamed ahead of Avengers screenings
- Many Chinese social media users came out in support of authorities’ actions
- Local courts are increasingly turning to public shaming to recoup funds from citizens
What began as isolated reports last year that cinemas were screening a “reel of shame” — one in south-western Sichuan province showed the details of business executives who defaulted on their debts — is now being rolled out more widely.
It comes as the Asian superpower utilises multiple technological tools to monitor the behaviour of its 1.4 billion citizens, as part of its Social Credit System that is alternately used to punish and reward citizens’ behaviour.
Most recently, at a cinema in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, Marvel’s long-awaited premiere of Avengers: Endgame was preceded by blown-up headshots of people who owed money to the state as a preview to the main feature.
The public shaming session urged the featured debtors to pay their dues or face consequences, according to a post shared by Liandu District People’s Court’s WeChat account.
A 30-second clip accompanied by dramatic background music included images of 60 people and the amounts they owed.
The clip says there is “zero tolerance” for people who do not pay their debts, saying they risked being barred from taking China’s high-speed trains and staying in hotels, as well as having their bank accounts frozen.
Liandu Court said in an announcement last May that cinema shaming was just one of its strategies, and people who defaulted on paying court-ordered fines would also have their image displayed on screens in more than 300 locations across shopping malls, railway stations and markets “in order to give the dishonest people nowhere to hide”.
The practice is the latest court-mandated escalation in naming and shaming “laolai” — a derogatory term for dishonest debtors who are placed on a financial blacklist — that is mushrooming across China.
Earlier this year, China’s Hebei province rolled out a Deadbeat Map for social media giant WeChat that gave users a radar showing them when they were in the presence of someone who owed the state money.
‘I have to make sure my kid won’t see that’: Debtor
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Local courts are increasingly turning to public shaming — from reels of shame to billboard displays — as a method to recoup funds from citizens.
Reports from state media outlets China News and Xinhua show courts have also been employing the tactic at cinemas and other public locations in Hebei, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Guizhou provinces.
One debtor, named only as Lan, told local media outlet Zhejiang Daily that he went to pay off his debts after his details were publicised at an Avengers: Endgame screening in the province.
“As a father, I don’t want to shame my daughter … I have to make sure that my kid won’t see that,” he said.
The shaming ahead of Avengers: Endgame was widely discussed on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where many users were surprised by the preview — and generally supportive of authorities’ actions.
“I suggest to promote it across the whole country. I give credit to it!” Weibo user Eden-Lee posted.
But despite the hype, Liandu Court said only 80 of the 5,478 people who had featured in its reels of shame in 2018 had fulfilled their monetary obligations.
And not everyone in China supports the embrace of public shaming.
“To be honest, I don’t mind it if the trailer was exposing wanted criminals — authorities are fully capable of catching these laolai people without making them suffer,” another Weibo user posted.
“Why would they impose public shaming [like this similar to] the Cultural Revolution?”