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Alipay Says Sorry After App Turns Into ‘Girls Gone Wild’ Platform

Online payment app Alipay triggered controversy in China this week when it launched a new group chat feature that soon turned into a soft porn place. CEO Peng Lei now apologizes

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Online payment app Alipay triggered controversy in China this week when it launched a new group chat feature that soon turned into a ‘soft porn’ place. CEO Peng Lei now apologizes and says the past 48 hours have been “the most difficult two days” of her Alipay career.

It was not long after Alipay (also referred to as ‘China’s Paypal’) launched its new group chat feature “Circles” on November 27 that the function sparked huge controversy on Chinese social media.

Although the “Circles” function was initially intended to make the Alipay app a more versatile platform, it was soon flooded with sexy pictures by female users.

 

Some app groups soon turned into a platform where hundreds of women posted sexy pictures tempting men to spend some digital money.

 

The Alipay app, that is owned by Ant Financial Services (蚂蚁金服), previously already allowed users to interact with each other; besides just sending payments, users could also send each other texts, pictures, voice messages, short videos or their location.

Various features within the Alipay app (What's on Weibo).

Various features within the Alipay app (What’s on Weibo).

The new social feature “Circles” (生活圈) now also makes it possible for users to interact in categorical groups. But here’s the catch: some of these groups only allow specific users (like ‘female college students’) to post, and only allows people with a high credit score to comment.

By limiting the chat groups to allowing users of a certain sex (female) to post, while only allowing other users above a certain credit score to comment/interact, Alipay’s new feature became an overnight success, but perhaps not in the way it hoped to be.

Some app groups, such as the one named ‘Campus Diary’ (校园日记), soon turned into a platform where hundreds of women posted sexy pictures to tempt men or other users with a high credit score to spend some of their digital money.

The incident led to outrage on Sina Weibo, which was especially caused by Chinese businessman Wang Sicong (王思聪).

 

“O2O prostitution is f*cking amazing!”

 

On November 27, Wang Sicong, who has over 21.4 million followers on Weibo, posted: ““O2O [online to offline] prostitution is f-cking amazing.” He also made a word joke with an Alipay logo saying: “Pay the pimp” (translation by Quartz/Huang).

Weibo post by Wang Sicong of November 27.

Weibo post by Wang Sicong of November 27.

Wang’s post was the beginning of a social media storm, where many netizens were upset that the finance app had turned into a raunchy place: “Our internet is controlled by scum!”, one person said.

Others were also upset that they were not allowed to join social groups because of their sex (“Only women are allowed to post in this group”) or because their credit score was too low: “Alipay won’t let me post! What is this supposed to mean?”

 

“How could Alipay have been so stupid?”

 

On November 29, Chinese media reported that Ant Financial’s director Peng Lei (彭蕾) apologized for the controversy caused by Alipay’s new feature and that the most controversial groups had immediately been removed from Circles.

In a public statement, Peng admitted that Alipay had made a “mistake”, and said that the past two days had been the “most difficult” in the 7-year-long work for Alipay.

In the evening of November 29 (Beijing time), many Weibo users reported that the ‘Circles’ function had been entirely closed down.

appdown

“How could Alipay have been so stupid?”, many netizens wonder.

“Some friends of my added many new Alipay friends over the past two days to heighten their credit score so that they could comment on college girls,” one Weibo user said.

The height of one’s Alipay credit score, named Sesame Credit Score (芝麻信用分), is based on various factors, such as one’s financial standing, purchases, address, number of friends, etc. The ‘Campus Diary’ group only allowed users with a credit score over 750 points to join, which apparently made some users frantically look for new friends to heighten their score.

Inviting friends to Alipay will heighten your credit score.

Inviting friends to Alipay will heighten your credit score.

“This shows that there are many prostitutes among college students,” one Weibo commenter said: “You should track down those who exposed themselves.”

There are also some who don’t see what all the fuss is about: “They [Alipay] are just creating new business opportunities for college students!”

– By Manya Koetse
Follow on Twitter or Like on Facebook

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China and Covid19

The Curious Case of the Henan Bank Depositors and the Changing Health QR Codes

“It must be American hackers who did this, right?”, some Weibo commenters wrote in light of the miraculously changing Health Codes.

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Where can people turn to once their money seems to have gone up in flames? How could Health Codes randomly turn from green to red? And who will stand up for justice? These are the questions asked by Chinese netizens in the Henan bank depositors case that is making headlines this week.

This week, the story of a Henan banking scandal and depositors’ Health Codes suddenly turning red triggered online discussions in China and even made international headlines.

In between online deposit products, financial platforms, regional banks, and Health Code systems, the story is a bit messy. Here, we’ll explain the story and its latest developments.

 

DUPED DEPOSITORS

 

The story starts in April of this year when people discovered that they were unable to withdraw money they had invested in online deposit products offered by various smaller regional banks.

Some people had deposited money via the Baidu money app (Du Xiaoman Financial 度小满), others had used another third-party platform, intermediaries, or one of the mini-programs run by the banks themselves.

By early May, it had become clear that dozens of depositors who once thought they had invested their money wisely had actually been duped. Four of the banks involved are located in Henan province, namely: the Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank (禹州新民生村镇银行), Shangcai Huimin County Bank (上蔡惠民村镇银行), Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank (柘城黄淮村镇银行), and the Kaifeng New Oriental Country Bank (开封新东方村镇银行).

But there are also other smaller banks involved, including Guzhen Xinhuaihe Rural Bank (固镇新淮河村镇银行) and Yixian Xinhuaihe Rural Bank (黟县新淮河村镇银行) in Anhui.

As reported by South China Morning Post by late May, multiple customers had confirmed that they had not been able to withdraw funds either online or in person.

The sudden apparent closure of their withdrawal channels set off a wave of panic among depositors, who then protested in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou on May 23rd, demanding the return of their money.

Yang Huajun (杨华军), deputy director of the Henan branch of China’s Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), arrived at the scene of the protests and – speaking through a megaphone – promised the demonstrators that as long as their funds were “legally” deposited, they would be protected by law.

Many depositers, however, were unsure of whether or not their deposits were actually made in a “legal” way and what the definition of “legal” entailed in this case.

Over the past years, Chinese smaller rural banks have partnered with online platforms, often offering relatively high returns, in order to boost their deposit-reliant funding base.

In December of 2020, platforms Alipay, Du Xiaoman Financial, JD.com and Tencent Wealth Management all suspended the sale of online deposit products via their financial apps in light of heightened scrutiny from regulators concerning funds raised by unstable smaller lenders.

The smaller banks that are now at the center of the recent financial scandal then (illegally) reached out to their existing customers directly after December 2020 and convinced them to download the banks’ apps in order to deposit even more money.

One of the persons duped is Mr. Sun from Shenzhen. As reported by Sina Finance, it was in 2020 when Sun came across a seemingly attractive online saving product via the Du Xiaoman Financial app. Although Sun was not familiar with the banks in question, namely the Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank and Shangcai Huimin County Bank, he could not resist the deposit interest rate of 4.6%, which was much better than what the big banks were offering at the time.

In early 2021, Mr. Sun received a text message from Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank saying that although the financial products had been taken offline, users would still be able to deposit through the bank’s own online application. Mr. Sun ended up depositing his entire savings into the Henan-based rural bank, thousands of miles away from his own home.

And then, earlier this year, Sun came across the news that Henan New Wealth Group, the primary shareholder of all banks involved, was under investigation for fraudulous practices. When he opened up his online financial application, there was nothing to see but a notice that the system was under maintenance. Sun could no longer access his funds. Hundreds of other customers were seeing the same empty screens.

According to media reports, the current suspected scam case affects some 400,000 customers of seven local banks and involves a money sum of 40 billion yuan ($5,6 billion).

 

IN THE RED

 

As thousands of depositors have been fighting to recover their savings over the past two months, they were duped a second time earlier this week. Dozens of affected depositors claimed they had seen their Health Codes turn red without any logical reason on June 13 or June 14 – the day of a planned protest.

In China’s Covid era, the Health Code system has become a pivotal tool in the country’s battle to contain the spread of the virus. The Health Code system is embedded in various apps, most importantly in Wechat and Alipay, and uses various data to assess an individual’s exposure risk. There is not one unified national Health Code application; they are developed by different actors and their management is different across Chinese provinces and cities.

If there is no detected risk, an individual is assigned a Green QR Code and is allowed access into any venue or location where a QR code scan is mandatory. With a Yellow Code, you should stay home for a week, and Red Code means you are high risk and need to quarantine for 14 days – this severely limits your freedom to move around and travel.

On June 13th, many affected investors saw their Health Code turn red when arriving in Zhengzhou, where they were allegedly coming to retrieve their savings and protest the injustice they suffered. The QR code color change was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity and also considering the fact that accompanying family members who made the exact same journey did not see their Health Codes change.

This raised suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted, and that their Health Codes were being manipulated by authorities.

CNN reported that many distributors who had come to Zhengzhou were taken to a guarded quarantine hotel before being sent back to their hometowns via train the next day. According to a Chinese media report by Nanfang Daily, the depositors were not even asked to do nucleic acid testing and were told by local staff that they would get their Green Code back as soon as they left Henan.

Various media report that minimally 200 depositors saw their Health Code change from Green to Red earlier this week.

 

“OPERATION CODE RED”

 

The curious case of the Henan depositors scandal and the changing Health Code colors has become a trending topic on Chinese social media this week.

The topic of the duped depositors was also discussed online before this week, and it brought back memories of earlier financial scandals, such as the P2P chaos that occurred back in 2018.

But the topic of depositors’ Health Codes changing to Red is something that attracted much wider discussions on the apparent abuse of a system that has now become a part of everyday life for people in China’s Covid era.

The main proof for people that the Henan depositors were targeted in this apparent “Operation Code Red” is that, as mentioned before, the family members that were traveling together with the duped depositors never saw a change in their Health Code: those people who were listed on the affected regional banks’ depositors list were seemingly singled out and purposely targeted.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their powers to try and stop protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. One Weibo post on this issue received over 1,6 million views. Meanwhile, Henan authorities still said they did “not understand” what had happened.

“It must be American hackers who did this, right?”, some Weibo commenters wrote, putting in a sarcastically smiling emoji, with others adding: “No, the aliens did this – it must have been the aliens!”

Others wrote that the situation at hand should be simple to figure out: “There is no way that this is an oversight or a data error. If you want to know who did this, look at who or which department has the authority to manage both epidemic prevention measures as well as finance affairs.”

Many comments also showed a sense of disillusionment with how China’s Covid management affects the people: “After seeing the chaos during the Shanghai lockdown, this does not even surprise me anymore,” one person wrote on Weibo: “All we can do is pray that it won’t happen to us.”

“Why is Henan’s “messy Red Code” incident so extremely vile and scary? Because once a person or institution holding public power looks at you in a bad light, they can give you a Red Code and take you away, in the name of legality. This is the evil that comes from unmonitored power,” one blogger from Anhui wrote.

Other people also worried about foreign media reporting on this issue, saying this incident is being used to cast China in a bad light while local authorities are to blame: “We should unify the Health Code system into a national system in order to avoid this from happening again.”

According to Chinese state media reports, the case has now been forwarded to the Health Commission of Henan Province for further investigation.

We will keep tracking upcoming developments. Meanwhile, check out our other reports on trending topics relating to China’s banking and finance here. For more about Covid-related trending topics, check here.

By Manya Koetse
With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Image via Weibo

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References (all other sources included in hyperlinks)

Lee, Amanda. 2022. “Rural Banks Freeze Customers’ Accounts.” South China Morning Post, May 31.

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

From Teacher to Livestreamer: Ecommerce Move is Game Changer for China’s New Oriental Education

New Oriental is going from classroom to e-commerce. Online shopping has never been more educational.

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After laying off 60,000 staff last year, Chinese private education company New Oriental is now offering unexpected new employment opportunities for teachers in the livestream market. Changing e-commerce channels into virtual classrooms, New Oriental has hit the sweet spot with Chinese netizens.

Last year, an unprecedented crackdown on China’s private education sector left many teachers unemployed and worried about their future.

China’s so-called ‘double reduction’ (双减) policy was announced in August of 2021 and targeted “excessive homework” and off-campus tutoring for students in the mandatory nine-year education system. The new regulations imposed strict sanctions on existing private education institutions, forcing them to register as non-profit organizations. Foreign investment in the private tutoring sector was also banned.

One of the companies that was hit particularly hard by this policy is New Oriental (新东方), the largest provider of private educational services in China. Following the crackdown, the company suffered huge losses and dismissed 60,000 employees.

Facing the new regulations, including the ban on for-profit tutoring in subjects on the school curriculum, New Oriental tried to keep its head above water by exploring new markets and ideas within the private education sector. For example, the company launched a special program to train parents on how to tutor their K-12 children themselves. New Oriental called it their “excellent parenting” (优质父母) training class.

Now, nearly a year later, another initiative by New Oriental has become an online hit. Inspired by the success of livestream e-commerce in China, the tutoring company started its own livestream channels. Although New Oriental already introduced its e-commerce business in late 2021, with founder Yu Minhong (俞敏洪) sometimes hosting the sessions himself, it had not been as much of an online success until it recently introduced bilingual livestream e-commerce sessions.

Now, tutors-turned-sellers are teaching viewers English – or sometimes other subjects – while selling (agricultural) products via the Douyin app. Whether they are selling fruit, rice, or even shrimp, New Oriental’s livestream hosts are grabbing every opportunity to teach their viewers a new word or concept, often using a whiteboard to introduce new vocabulary.

Whatever they’re selling, New Oriental’s livestream hosts make sure it’s educational.

One reason for New Oriental becoming a viral hit is because of Dong Yuhui (董宇辉), who is one of the experienced teachers now selling products online. Dong’s bilingual livestreams are particularly successful among viewers because of his enthusiasm, fluency in English, witty jokes, personal stories, and talent for singing.

Teacher Dong recently had a breakthrough moment with his June 10th livestream, during which he sold bags of rice using English. He has since attracted over nine million viewers. While thanking all viewers for their support in a recent Weibo post, Dong described himself as a “ordinary peasant boy.”

Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) is one of the livestreamers that have turned New Oriental’s e-commerce into a viral hit.

Besides Dong, there are also other popular hosts. English teachers Ming Ming, Yoyo, and Dun Dun are all loved by viewers for their charm and wit.

Although various kinds of social e-commerce categories are particularly popular in China, this new phenomenon of combining education + e-commerce + livestream is appreciated by many netizens who like to learn something while being entertained and perhaps also buying something. “I don’t know whether to place an order or to make notes,” has become a popular comment. Another commenter said: “As a kid I took your class, and now I buy your goods.”

Others say that they like the calm way in which the livestreams are presented, posing a stark contrast to other livestreams where the hosts are hyping up products and urging people to buy fast and buy more.

On June 15th, news came out that New Oriental’s stocks had surged by more than 25% following its livestreaming success.

Although some Weibo users predict that this is just a temporary trend, others think that the educational livestream model is here to stay: “New Oriental really started a new business venture, and I’m learning a lot through their livestream sessions.”

By Manya Koetse
With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Image via Weibo

Read related article: China’s Crackdown on Tutoring Schools: Concerned Parents and Teachers on Weibo

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