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Baihang and the Eight Personal Credit Programmes: A Credit Leap Forward

“The personal credit era has arrived,” some netizens say.

Manya Koetse

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Baihang Credit has received ample coverage in Chinese press recently as it was launched as “the first unified personal-credit information firm” of the PRC. It joins forces with Alibaba, Tencent, and six other big companies in further building on China’s credit-based society. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of the developments that have led to the formation of this powerful credit platform.

Three years after eight commercial firms were granted permission by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to start their pilot programmes in operating personal credit systems in 2015, none of them have received a license.

Instead, they’ve now become shareholders and active contributors to a new unified platform that has access to an enormous number of personal credit data. At the so-called ‘trust alliance’ (信联) Baihang Credit (百行征信), state level and commercial organizations join forces in further developing China’s credit systems.

How they can share data without harming Chinese recent laws on privacy, however, remains vague.

Some background

An important moment within this development started over twelve years ago (to be precise: on March 20 of 2006), when the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) began operating its own independent Credit Reference Center. The goal of the brand-new center was to set up the reliable credit checking platform which China was still lacking at the time.

At its core, it was tasked with managing a national commercial and consumer credit reporting system, to enable financial institutions to assess borrowers’ creditworthiness.

Screenshot of The Credit Reference Center website.

In November of 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Congress, new plans were adopted to also “establish and improve a social credit system to commend honesty and punish dishonesty” (USC 2013), putting more pressure on the formation of a solid credit checking system in China.

Months later, in 2014, the Chinese State Council issued an official notice concerning the construction of a nationwide Social Credit System that was to be rolled out by 2020 (Creemers 2014).

 

Three Years of the “Credit Leap Forward”

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that not too long after the formal announcement of these plans, that would lead to a more credit-based Chinese society, the PBOC Credit Center opened its doors to eight Chinese companies to work on trial programmes to prepare for operating their own personal credit information businesses.

At the time, in 2015, the PBOC’s Credit Center had been around for nearly a decade, yet still ‘only’ covered 25% of the Chinese population, leaving ample risks in the control process of Chinese financial services (Yang 2017).

You could say that 2015 was an important year in which competition for China’s multi-billion personal credit investigation market really began, along with the flourishing of China’s Internet population and the growing demand for personal online data information (Jun 2015). A recent Caixin column by Xinhai Liu (刘新海), associate researcher at the Credit Reference Center, even calls the 2015-2018 period the “Credit Great Leap Forward” (“征信大跃进的三年”).

Besides that new personal credit rating tech firms started to pop up, the year 2015 was also the year when misconceptions arose in foreign media regarding these existing credit systems.* ACLU called it “nightmarish,” falsely claiming that all Chinese would be “measured by a score between 350 and 950, which is linked to their national identity card” and that “the government has announced that it will be mandatory by 2020.”

As explained in our recent article about this issue, these discussions – that continue in foreign media to this day – often blur the lines between the national Social Credit system and a number of private programs. (To understand more about the difference between the government’s Social Credit system and the commercial ones, please read the previous article we featured on this topic.)

These misunderstandings partly come from the fact that both the government’s plans on introducing their ‘Social Credit System’ (社会信用体系) and the Central Bank’s endeavors to build a stronger personal credit industry (个人征信行业) were major developments in the period from 2013-2015 up to the present.

 

The Eight Programmes

 

With such a strong demand for solid credit rating systems, why have none of the eight approved tech firms received their license, over three years after starting pilot operations?

One of the main problems with commercial services such as the well-known ‘Sesame Credit’ is, according to PBOC spokesperson Wan Cunzhi, that they are all “isolated islands” (“信息孤岛”) of non-shared data, that they are lacking in independence, and that their data management is not strong enough (Yang 2017).

The coming-together of these “islands” solves this problem and forms one solid platform under the ‘Baihang’ label. Which eight companies does this concern? An overview:

1. Sesame Credit (芝麻信用)

This is the best-known commercial personal credit score programme, implemented by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. Sesame Credit already had 520 million users as of 2017.

Sesame Credit example scores explained, from 385 being in the low range to 731 being in the ‘good’ range.

Sesame Credit was launched in 2015. Because it is part of the Alibaba family, Sesame Credit has an enormous amount of data at its disposal, from e-commerce sites to finance products (Taobao, Tianmao, Alipay, etc), through which it compiles users’ own scores, going from 350-950, for those who have opted into the program. The scores are based on a number of things, including people’s payment history, their contacts and network, and online behavior.

2. Tencent Credit (腾讯征信)

Since the Tencent company currently hosts 55% of China’s mobile internet usage on its platforms (Marr 2018), it has also an enormous amount of data at its disposal. Similar to Sesame Credit, Tencent Credit works with a 300-850 score system. It officially launched a trial of its score programme in January of 2018, but then took it down shortly after.

3. Kaola Credit (考拉征信)

Koala Credit is an independent third-party credit company established by the Shenzhen-based Lakara (拉卡拉) financial services company. Koala Credit was launched in May of 2015, around the same time as Sesame Credit launched its program. Lakara has strategic and powerful partnerships with China Unionpay, five major banks, and hundreds of other financial institutions. Lakara and Koala Credit jointly founded a pioneering lab in China that focuses on big data models. The University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is involved in this project (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

4. Pengyuan Credit (鹏元征信)

Established in 2005, Pengyuan Credit is amongst the oldest personal credit investigation firms of the eight selected by the PBOC. The company states on its website that its main goal since 2005 has been to “create a credit reporting ecosphere on the Internet,” shifting from traditional credit rating systems to online credit rating methods.

5. Sinoway Credit (华道征信)

The Beijing Sinoway Credit was established in 2013 by four large financial companies. As explained by BJReview (2016), Sinoway is among those companies (such as Zhima and Tencent) that accumulate data from their business rather than using traditional algorithms to collect financial and public data. They have exclusive access to enterprise data (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

6. Qianhai Credit Service (深圳前海征信)

Qiu Han, CEO of Qianhai.

Another company established in 2013, Qianhai Credit is based in Shenzhen. It was launched by financial giant Pingan. The current CEO is the female big data specialist Qiu Han (邱寒).

7. China Chengxin Credit (中诚信征信)

The Beijing-based China Chengxin Credit company was founded in 2005, established by the China Chengxin Credit Management group. The firm provides personal credit information and companies and market research services. As described by the China Money Network, its database is connected to local administrations for industry and commerce, police, courts, telecom service providers to provide comprehensive credit information.

8. Intellicredit (中智诚征信)

Intellicredit is a Beijing-based independent, third-party credit registry. CEO Li Xuan (李萱) has previously expressed the company’s goal to handle any loopholes that let scammers get away with fraud in China’s online financial environment. The company is experienced in credit industries both in China and abroad, and its team has also worked on the establishment of the credit reporting system of the PBOC (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

 

Baihang & Allies: An Abundance of Personal Data

 

The formal launch of Baihang Credit (百行征信), the “first unified personal credit information firm” of China, has become big news in Chinese media, with some calling it a personal credit industry game changer.

Lauch of Baihang Credit, May 23 2018 (photo via Weibo).

Baihang Credit is a joint establishment of the aforementioned eight and the China Internet Finance Association.* It received its license in February of this year. The firm officially opened for business on May 23rd of 2018.

While the China Internet Finance association reportedly holds 36% of the Baihang firm, the other eight shareholders each hold 8% (Zhang & Liu 2018).

^

The eight companies are not just financial investors, but also active contributors and sharers of technology, resources, and data for the Baihang firm. The launch of this joint establishment means that both state-level institutions and commercial enterprises combine their efforts in building a strong personal credit investigation and service platform; the new system now links data collected by these powerful firms such as Tencent to the state-level China Internet Finance Association, which in itself is an initiative by the People’s Bank of China.

Besides basic data including personal information, education level, salaries or employer, companies such as Sesame Credit or Tencent also have access to a rich collection of consumer data, ranging from social media, e-commerce purchases, online travel data, to location, phone records and even social connections.

The eight firms will also play an important role in Baihang’s management. Sesame Credit, Tencent Credit, Qianhai Credit, Sinoway and Koala Credit have all entered the company’s board of directors. The other three companies will join the board of supervisors (Sina Finance 2018). The 57-year-old Zhu Huanqi (朱焕启) will be Baihang’s CEO and president; he previously worked at Huida Asset Management.

The PBOC told Caixin Global that all parts of the eight companies that previously dealt with personal credit ratings will now be incorporated into Baihang. The other parts can continue to operate as data service providers. In the future, Sesame Credit, for example, will continue to research commercial credit services.

 

Many Questions Linger

 

While the recent alliance has received ample attention in Chinese media as an important moment in China’s transforming alleged ‘credit-based’ society, many questions still linger.

One Nanjing research institute writes on Weibo: “The joining of these companies means they can share big data. This also means that if a person is behind [in payments] on one platform, they will also have no access to loans on any of the others.”

But is it all about sharing personal financial credit information, or is this about the sharing of other data as well? What are the legal implications of Baihang operations? And to what extent, if at all, will the system link to the upcoming nationwide Social Credit System?

Caixin Global noted that Baihang Credit will face challenges regarding Chinese Cybersecurity Law, which imposes strict limits on ‘secondary uses’ of data beyond its original purpose, and requires individual authorization when personal data is transferred from one institution to another (Sacks 2018; Zhang & Liu 2018).

In this Caixin article, the PBOC’s spokesperson would not elaborate on how Baihang will collect and use personal data. He was only quoted in saying only that contributions to Baihang will be handled “according to market rules.”

 

“Personal Credit Era has Arrived”

 

Despite the many articles about Baihang in Chinese media, it has not become a much-discussed topic on social media; netizens discussing Chinese credit systems seem more concerned with the height of their Sesame Credit score.

One Weibo user, however, did write about the Baihang alliance, commenting: “The personal credit era has arrived” (“个人信用时代到来”).

Other people worry about the impact of this alliance, saying: “You’ll see that if you have a negative balance on your bank account, you won’t be able to use the public bathroom anymore.” (Recently, various cities in China are upgrading their public toilets, integrating AI features such as facial recognition for people to receive free toilet paper.)

Some commenters simply call the companies that have joined under Baihang “a pile of trash.”

Although Sesame Credit will not receive a license to operate its personal credit investigation business, it is highly probable that users of their credit programme will still be able to enjoy the perks of, among many other things, entering libraries for free or riding rental bikes without deposit with a high score.

“I’ve just arrived in Hangzhou and can do many things for free,” one person wrote: “I feel like my Credit Score is omnipotent.”

Baihang’s recent alliance is about to make Chinese personal credit scores even more omnipotent – the ‘Credit Leap Forward’ is well underway.

By Manya Koetse


Directly support Manya Koetse. By supporting this author you make future articles possible and help the maintenance and independence of this site. Donate directly through Paypal here. Also check out the What’s on Weibo donations page for donations through creditcard & WeChat and for more information.

 

* In an article from December of 2015, for example, The Independent suggested that “China has created a social tool which gives people a score for how good a citizen they are,” describing how “China” had put forward “a concept straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia” named Sesame Credit.

* The Chinese Internet Finance Association, also known as the NIFA (National Internet Finance Association) was established in March of 2015 upon approval by the Chinese State Council and Ministry of Civil Affairs. It is a state-level organization.

References (others linked directly within text)

Creemers, Rogier. 2014. “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020).” China Copyright and Media, 14 June China https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/planning-outline-for-the-construction-of-a-social-credit-system-2014-2020/ [10.6.18].

Creditchina. 2018. “百行征信入场,8家股东剥离个人征信业务.” CreditChina.gov, 4 June http://www.creditchina.gov.cn/gerenxinyong/gerenxinyongliebiao/201806/t20180604_117132.html [10.6.18].

Huang, Zhiling. 2016. “Six Obstacles to Producing Reliable Big-Data Credit Reports.” BJ Review, 15 December http://www.bjreview.com/Business/201612/t20161212_800074419.html [9.6.18].

Jun, Wang. 2015. “Road to Credit.” Beijing Review, 3 August http://www.bjreview.com.cn/business/txt/2015-08/03/content_698269.htm [9.6.18].

Marr, Bernard. 2018. “Artificial Intelligence (AI) In China: The Amazing Ways Tencent Is Driving It’s Adoption.” Forbes, 4 June https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/06/04/artificial-intelligence-ai-in-china-the-amazing-ways-tencent-is-driving-its-adoption/#5130d54b479a [10.6.18].

Sacks, Samm. 2018. “New China Data Privacy Standard Looks More Far-Reaching than GDPR” CSIS, 29 January https://www.csis.org/analysis/new-china-data-privacy-standard-looks-more-far-reaching-gdpr [9.6.18].

Sina Finance. 2018. “百行征信揭开面纱 芝麻信用腾讯征信等五家入董事会.” sina Finance, 4 January http://finance.sina.com.cn/money/bank/bank_yhfg/2018-01-05/doc-ifyqinzs8775295.shtml [10.6.18].

USC. 2013. “Decision Of The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China On Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening The Reform, November 12, 2013.” USC, 12 November https://china.usc.edu/decision-central-committee-communist-party-china-some-major-issues-concerning-comprehensively [10.9.18].

Yang, Felix. 2017. “Is Xinlian the answer to the Individual Credit Checking System in China?” Kapronasia, 25 Aug https://www.kapronasia.com/china-banking-research-category/item/886-is-xinlian-the-answer-to-the-individual-credit-checking-system-in-china.html [10.6.18].

Zhang, Yuzhe, and Liu Xiao. 2018. “Launch of Unified Platform Boots Private Firms From Personal Credit Business.” Caixin Global, May 28 https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-05-28/launch-of-unified-platform-boots-private-firms-from-personal-credit-business-101258187.html [10.6.18].

Zhuo Huang, Yang Lei & Shihan Shen. 2016. “China’s personal c>edit reporting system in the internet finance era: challenges and opportunities.” China Economic Journal (9:3): 288-303.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 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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Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

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What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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Images via Weibo account of Communist Youth League, CCTV, and People’s Daily.

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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