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Jews in Shanghai: Memories of a Nearly Forgotten Community

As modern buildings mushroom and old neighborhoods disappear, the traces of Jewish history are fading in today’s Shanghai. But recent initiatives, such as the Jews in Shanghai musical and the launch of a Shanghai Jewish diaspora website, keep the memories of a nearly forgotten community more alive than ever – A short history of Jews in Shanghai and how their history is remembered in 21st century China.

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As modern buildings mushroom and old neighborhoods disappear, the traces of Jewish history are fading in today’s Shanghai. But recent initiatives, such as a Jews in Shanghai musical and the launch of a Shanghai Jewish diaspora website, keep the memories of China’s Jewish heritage more alive than ever. A short history of Jews in Shanghai and how their history is remembered in 21st century China.
Story by Manya Koetse, photo-reportage by Maarten van der Meer.
Perhaps Jewish history is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Shanghai. Yet the vibrant city harbors a rich history of Jewish heritage – a history that has recently seen a revival in Chinese media and entertainment.

The increased attention for the Jewish community of Shanghai and the history of Jews in China comes at a time when relations between China and Israel are at a new height. The two countries recently signed a visa deal that has encouraged mutual travel. Tel Aviv and Beijing are also making plans to establish a free trade zone.

 

DISAPPEARING HISTORIES

“While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings make the news.”

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The ‘memory revival’ of China’s Jewish history also comes at a time when old Jewish neighborhoods in Shanghai are being demolished. A reviving Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng is facing an ongoing crackdown by the government, as Judaism does not belong to China’s five state-approved religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Protestantism.

Shanghai’s northern district of Hongkou is at the heart of Shanghai’s old Jewish neighborhood. Although many buildings are well-preserved, large parts of the neighborhood have been demolished over the past few years. Residents are located to other, more remote, areas of the city.

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While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings sometimes make the news. In 2014, an old residence set for demolition turned out to be a meeting place for Sun Yat-sen and other well-known people during the 1910s. The building was preserved after a Weibo user asked for help to save it.

In February 2016, another Hongkou building remained intact after it was discovered to be be a former ‘comfort women’ house used by Japanese troops during WWII.

While parts of the old neighborhood are disappearing, new initiatives are keeping its memories alive.

 

NEW WAYS OF REMEMBERING

“China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history.”

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Just 3 kilometers from Shanghai’s famous Peace Hotel (its Victor’s Café was named after famous Shanghai Jew Sir Victor Sassoon) lies the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum; opened in 2007 to commemorate the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai during WWII. The museum frequently holds new displays and events to catch the audience’s attention.

But the history of Jews in Shanghai is kept alive through more than only the museum. Over the past few years, China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history. Its historical revival mainly takes place outside museums, namely in popular culture and cyberspace.

China’s first animated movie about the Jewish history of Shanghai premiered in 2010. A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (犹太女孩在上海) tells the story and hardships of Jewish girl Rena who flees Nazi persecution by traveling to Shanghai during the WWII. The film has been described as “China’s first homegrown Jewish film”. A sequel to the anime appeared in 2015.

In the same year (2015), the first musical themed around the Jews in Shanghai saw the light at the Shanghai International Arts Festival in October. The musical Jews in Shanghai (犹太人在上海) revolves around the blossoming love between a Jewish man and Shanghai woman during the chaos of WWII. The Chinese-Israeli musical premiered in Beijing in June of 2016 (Yuan 2016: 30).

Jews in Shanghai, the musical (image via mypiao.com).

Jews in Shanghai, the musical (image via mypiao.com).

Shanghai’s Jewish history is also being commemorated through digital channels. On September 28, Shanghai’s Hongkou district government released a multilingual website telling different stories of the Jewish diaspora in Shanghai during the World War II. The project, launched by Shanghai International Studies University and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, has collected stories from the time Jews fled to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.

E-learners can now also learn about the Jewish history in China through Coursera. Nanjing University has started offering an online course on Jewish Diaspora in China , taught by Dr. Xu Xin – an expert on the history of Judaism in China. The course requires enrollment but is offered for free.

 

JEWS IN CHINA/SHANGHAI: A SHORT HISTORY

“They have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese.”

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China has a long history of Jewish diaspora, although it is not entirely clear when and where this history began. What is clear, however, is that China is the only country in East Asia where Jews have consecutively lived for the last 1000 years. Marco Polo already mentioned the presence of Jews in China in 1286, and there is historical evidence that Jews lived in the old city of Kaifeng since the 11th century (Xin 2010: 133).

Although the city of Kaifeng once had a lively Jewish community, it gradually diminished throughout the 19th century. By the early 20th century, it had become nearly non-existent. When a bishop of the Anglican church visited the city in 1867, he already noted about the Kaifeng Jews that “they have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese” (Rhee 1973: 118).

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The reason for the Jewish demise could be explained through their complete assimilation in China. Throughout time, they took on Confucianism, practiced patrilineal descent, intermarried, and identified with Chinese culture so much that they were no longer really considered “Jewish” at all (1973: 115).

In Shanghai, however, something different was happening. After China was defeated by Britain during the first Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai became an open port where foreign trade was allowed and where Britain could establish settlements. It was at this time that the first wave of Jewish people came to Shanghai, along with British merchants, to start businesses there. This early Jewish community of modern China, who were Sephardi Jews, settled down in Shanghai and other cities (Hong Kong, Tianjin) to make money and establish companies.

The second wave of Jewish came to Shanghai in the early 20th century. These Ashkenazi Jews came from Eastern Europe and Russia, and also settled down in the bustling city to start small businesses. Together with the first wave of Jews in Shanghai, they had a thriving Jewish community with Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and institutions.

But the history of Jews in Shanghai is mostly known for the third wave of Jewish diaspora: German and Austrian Jewish who came to Shanghai as refugees before and during the WWII.

 

THE SHANGHAI GHETTO

“Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice.”

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Why Shanghai? For many Jews at the time, Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice (Xin 2016). As anti-Jewish violence grew strong in Nazi-ruled Germany and Austria, many Jews wanted to leave the country. But despite the 1938 Evian Conference in France, that was joined by 32 nations to resolve the Jewish refugee crisis, other countries remained reluctant to take in Jewish refugees. Without the required visas needed to enter countries such as America, many Jews were desperate.

Shanghai, however, was an exceptional place: it was an open port under the control of foreign powers, and it already was home to two relatively large Jewish communities. There was no need for a visa. For those who could afford to go on a boat to China, it was the best refugee haven (Gao 2011: 203; Meyer 2000: 71). After the anti-Jewish pogroms during the 1938 Kristallnacht, many Jews arrived in China. In the 1933-1940 period, approximately 20,000 European Jews came to China, of which a large majority arrived in Shanghai per boat (Xin 2016; Gao 2011: 203)

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The fourth and final wave of Jewish arrived in China via the Japanese city of Kobe. It was a Polish Jewish community who had ended up in Kobe via Siberia, but left again after the outbreak of the Pacific War. By the early 1940s, four different Jewish communities, coming from four different “waves” of diaspora, lived in Shanghai together at the same time.

It was Shanghai’s Hongkou district (also spelled as ‘Hongkew’) that became the main Jewish neighborhood. Since it was amongst the lesser developed areas of Shanghai, the cost of living was cheap there. But under Japanese control, the area’s Tilanqiao neighborhood (提篮桥) turned into a “designated area for stateless refugees”, simply a “ghetto”, where around 20,000 of its 50,000 residents were Jewish. Japanese authorities controlled the district and prohibited Jews from leaving the “Hongkou ghetto” without the required papers, which were hard to obtain.

According to Evelyn Pike Rubin, one of the German-Jewish refugees who survived in Shanghai during the 1939-1947 period, the designated area only came in 1943. She told What’s on Weibo: “Until 1943 we could live anywhere. As a matter of fact, I lived with my parents on Avenue Joffre. It was not until May of 1943 that the so-called ‘ghetto’ was established. Mr. Ghoya gave out the passes – sometimes with difficulty. My mother got a pass and did business outside the ghetto and I and my friends got passes to continue attending the Shanghai Jewish school in the former International Settlerment on Seymour Road.”

Evelyn Pike Rubin later published a book about her experiences in Shanghai, titled Ghetto Shanghai (1998: link).

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Despite suffering hardships, the Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto were safe and far removed from the horrors of Europe. Jewish children attended school and could freely play around the streets with their Chinese friends.

Nina Admoni, who spent her childhood in the Shanghai ghetto, with her Chinese friends [image timesofisrael.com].

Nina Admoni, who spent her childhood in the Shanghai ghetto, with her Chinese friends [image timesofisrael.com].

Nina Admoni, a Polish Jew who spent her childhood in the ghetto, told Times of Israel in 2012 that she looked back on her experience in Shanghai fondly and even idyllically: “The Chinese people in Shanghai were very kind, that’s what I remember.”

 

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

“The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.”

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There is a world of difference between what once was the “Shanghai Ghetto” and the same area today. The first synagogue of Hongkou, from the 1920s, now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. The Jewish community is no longer active here. The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.

After WWII ended, Jews in China gradually left the country. It was not possible for them to become Chinese nationals, as the country did not have a naturalization procedure. The upheaval of the Chinese Civil War followed by the communist victory in 1949 meant that the Jewish could no longer continue to do business in China. As many left for North America, Australia, New Zealand or Palestine, only a few hundred Jews were left across China by the 1960s (Xin 2016).

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What once was a home and safe haven for thousands of Jews has now turned into a quiet neighbourhood with local shops and a street market. Many parts are being deconstructed for renovation.

Shanghai still has a small Jewish community, but it is not comparable to what it once was.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue on North Shaanxi Road is now regulated by the Chinese government. The Jews in Shanghai are allowed to hold a religious ceremony no more than three times per year.

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In Kaifeng, once home to China’s oldest Jewish community, a revival of Judaism amongst around 1000 residents who claim to be of Jewish ancestry has been met by opposition from the local government. It has shut down Jewish heritage organizations and has prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays. Signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past have been removed from public places.

China’s Jewish communities have changed through time. They have grown smaller, they have become Chinese, or they have vanished altogether.

Although the visibility of Jewish history might be disappearing from the streets of Shanghai, its stories are kept alive through books, museums, musicals, cinemas and on the internet. Its presence may be gone, but its history will never be lost.

– By Manya Koetse, photographs by Maarten van der Meer

About the photographer:
Maarten van der Meer is an independent/freelance photographer focusing on photographic stories, both fictive & real. He likes to mix various image styles and tries to find the narrative and excitement within everyday scenes. Besides his story projects, Van der Meer shoots portraits & landscapes.

References (news article sources in links)

– Gao, Bei. 2011. “The Chinese Nationionalist Government’s Policy Toward European Jewish Refguees During World War II.” Modern China 37 (2): 202-237.
– Meyer, Maisie J. 2000. “The Interrelationship of Jewish Communities in Shanghai.” Immigrants & Minorities 19 (2): 71-90.
– Rhee, Song Nai. 1973. “Jewish Assimilation: The Case of Chinese Jews.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 15(1): 115–126.
– Xin, Xu. 2010. “Tracing Judaism in China.” Social Sciences in China 31 (1), 130–161.
– Xin, Xu. 2016. “Jewish Diaspora in China” [online course]. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/jews-in-china/home/welcome [1.10.16]
– Yuan, Kang. 2016. “Jews in Shanghai: Love is Boundless.” Women of China (July): 30-31.

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

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Henry B Meisel

    February 11, 2017 at 1:43 am

    I am a survivor of the Shanghai Ghetto 1939-49…………lived in the Ghetto because we were declared stateless not because we were Jews….other Jews besides German,Viennese,Polish lived outside……..in fact the Japanese saved our lives though Germany an ally tried to find a solution. I lecture on the survival by showing the film “Shanghai Ghetto” with question and answer periods. In recent years Shanghai TV produced another film “Survival in Shanghai” which will be shown at Temple Emanuel in NYCity in April 2017

    (one part of this comment that included a link to a private website has been removed by whatsonweibo for as the link contained malware. sorry for any inconvenience)

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Backgrounder

Netizens or Not? About Chinese Online Communities & Use of the Term ‘Netizen’

The term ‘netizens’, referring to Chinese internet users, is both loved and hated.

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Chinese internet users are often referred to as ‘netizens’, but some people say the term is outdated and inappropriate. Should something change? What’s on Weibo explores the term and its use in different contexts.

It has been an issue of debate for years; the use of the word ‘netizen’ in English-language media – especially when referring to Chinese internet users.

At What’s on Weibo, it is a word we use in pretty much every article we post. Online media in China is our focus, and how ‘netizens’ deal with social media and trending topics is at the heart of this website.

But many people have had enough of the word ‘netizen.’ Already in 2013, Matt Schiavenza at The Atlantic wrote that the term was “once useful as a way to describe China’s internet users,” but that it is now “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading.”

Schiavenza argues that “netizens” is mainly used for Chinese internet users who are politically active or outspoken, while there is a huge number of Chinese people who are non-political in their online behavior.

The term has also been discussed among people on Reddit, where some call it a “stupid journalism” term.

At the conclusion of the recent Chinese Internet Research Conference at Leiden University, the term was also briefly discussed in the context of ‘online communities,’ with some scholars deeming the word inappropriate to refer to Chinese internet users – also suggesting that speaking of Chinese “online communities” in itself was problematic to begin with.

One discussion participant suggested that words such as ‘community’ or ‘netizen’ are labels used by outsiders in the academic world or in foreign media, rather than Chinese describing themselves that way – saying it is problematic because it is “our label, not theirs.”

Is this really true? What’s behind the term ‘netizens’? Should Chinese internet users be described with other terms than ‘netizens’? For what reasons?

 

Behind the Word ‘Netizen’

 

The word ‘netizen’ was first coined in 1984 and popularized with the spread of the internet during the 1990s. The word is a blend of the words ‘internet’ and ‘citizen,’ and is (or was) generally used to either refer to people who use the internet, or more specifically, to refer to people who participate in online discussions or belong to ‘online communities’ (Johnson 2013).

The term is also often attributed to net theoretician Michael Hauben, who used it in his 1997 work to define people who “actively contribute toward the development of the Internet” and for a “citizen who used the Internet as a way of participating in political society.”

Already in 2012,Time Magazine elected the term as one of the words that should be banished, suggesting it had become archaic since its launch in the 1980s.

But when looking at the more recent use of the word ‘netizens’ in academia and foreign media, the term is anything but dead. It does seem to be applied far more often to Asian online contexts, e.g. Chinese or Korean online users, than it is used to describe internet users in Europe or America.

The word ‘netizen’ used in random Google News search in 1-5 May period in 2013 and in 2018.

It is often used, for example, to talk about online fans of the K-pop industry or users of the Sina Weibo platform – suggesting that there has been a shift in the use of ‘netizens’ from the 1980s or 1990s to describe any internet user, to more specifically describing those (often Chinese) internet users that are part of a specific online circle.

 

From Netizen to Wangmin

 

One reason why ‘netizen’ is used in the Chinese case specifically, is because Chinese media and social media users use the word ‘wǎngmín’ (网民) very frequently.

Google News results show that the term wangmin (netizen) is constantly used in Chinese media.

Wangmin (网民) literally means ‘net-people’ or ‘net-citizens’ (thus literally: ‘netizens’), and is the generally accepted term to designate internet users in China. The term was described by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in 2013 as “Chinese residents who are six or older and have used the Internet at least once in the past six months” (Shen 2013).

The CNNIC has used the term wangmin officially since 1997, the year of its founding, when its first ‘China Wangmin Survey’ (中国网民调查) came out – the same year that Michael Hauben theorized and politicized the word.

The Chinese term wangmin seems to lack the more political implications of the term ‘netizen’ in English in Western countries, which has come to imply that an internet user is politically involved in online issues. Chinese fans of certain music genres or TV series are hardly politically involved in online causes, yet they are still wangmin.

There are (political) implications to the term wangmin on another level, though; in Chinese media, the term is mostly connected to nations. For example; one can speak of ‘American netizens’ (全美网民), ‘Canadian netizens’ (加拿大网民) or ‘Chinese netizens’ (中国网民,国内网民).

There are also instances in which the term is applied to platforms rather than nations. Some Chinese media have used the term ‘Sina Weibo netizens’ (新浪微博网民), for example.

 

Netizens versus Netizens

 

So what does this all mean? Firstly, it means that the use of ‘wangmin’ or ‘netizens’ in the Chinese context is not the same as the way the term ‘netizens’ has come to be used in the English-language Western context.

It also means that the term is not archaic at all. After all, who can claim a word is ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’ when it is practically being used at all hours of the day on Chinese internet and in Chinese media today? Even though it has been used since 1997, it has proved to be anything but a word trend: wangmin has become a part of normal Chinese vocabulary.

Third, claiming that it is a “stupid journalist term” or “our label, not theirs” also does not do just to the word; in the Chinese context, the term is used far beyond journalism, and more importantly; it is used by Chinese organizations and individuals to describe Chinese internet users, meaning it is not merely a term that is used by non-Chinese to describe Chinese online populations.

 

Online Communities

 

One thing that stands out when talking about ‘netizens’, no matter in what context, is that it is tied to the idea of an ‘online community.’ Much has been researched and said about what constitutes an online community, but for the scope of this article, we could say that it minimally requires some sense of a shared collective identity or some pursue of a shared purpose (Massa 2017, 961).

In the case of China’s online environment, online communities are built in two ways.

In one way, it is constructed at the state level to “define wangmin within the nation-state boundary,” as Yiping Shen (2015) writes in Public Discourses of Contemporary China.

This is, amongst others, very visible in state reports or state media that define “Chinese netizens” (中国网民) in the same way in which citizens are legally recognized subjects of a nation or state, meaning citizens of the PRC. In this way, all of China’s 772 + million internet users are part of this group of ‘netizens’ and have to follow to guidelines the government lays out for Chinese netizens.

In another way, it is used among Chinese companies and internet users to define themselves, either in the way the state has intended it, or at a smaller online community level. And these communities exist everywhere, from small-scale to large-scale, some existing for a long time, some being short-lived; from the long-standing Rage Comics community to temporary groups and Human Flesh Search Engines, to flourishing BBS or WeChat groups.

A platform such as Sina Weibo also clearly defines itself as a ‘community’ (社区), with its ‘Weibo Community Management’ (新浪微博社区管理) being an important part of the site in setting out guidelines for its members.

 

Wangyou: Chinese Online Friends

 

So what options are there for future references to Chinese internet users? Should we just stick to ‘netizens’? Would it more appropriate to use the original Chinese term ‘wangmin,’ or should we perhaps use another widespread term, namely that of ‘wǎngyǒu’?

Besides Chinese internet users defining themselves as wangmin, the word wangyou (网友), literally ‘web friend’, is also often used among netizens to define the members of their online ‘community’ (e.g. Weibo) or Chinese internet users at large.

Jessica Sun (孙慧), linguist and co-founder of the Dutch website Chinatalk, explains that ‘wangyou’ or ‘webfriends’ initially was meant to define those people one knew from cyberspace, when internet just gained traction in China.

Once China’s online population grew bigger, the idea of wangyou also grew to include more people. “It could also refer to a larger group of people who share the same interests or attitudes, instead of just friends,” Sun explains.

Sun compares the use of wangyou to the Chinese word for ‘friend’, pengyou (朋友), which is often used to sound more intimate, although the person addressed is not necessarily really considered a ‘friend.’

According to Sun’s analysis, wangmin (netizen) and wangyou (webfriend) are generally interchangeable, although there are some subtle differences. Sun has some remarks explaining the difference between the two terms:

1. In many cases, wangmin could also be a wangyou, but not the other way around. Wangyou can be used to show a more emotional attachment or personal relation, as in ‘my webfriends’ (我的网友). One can not say ‘my netizens’ (我的网民).

2. While wangyou is more intimate, wangmin is more neutral, and is therefore mainly used by news outlets.

3. The use of the term wangmin or wangyou depends on the attitude of the person who uses it towards a specific person/event, depending on the ‘community’ they are in or the stance they have towards a particular incident.

For example, when Chinese media report about wangyou doing something or being angered about something, it often means this author/publication is siding with these ‘webfriends’.

Headline using ‘wangyou’

The headline featured above (“As policeman bravely sacrifices his life, [some] webfriends are angered about these details“) is a story about a policeman who died on duty while trying to protect pedestrians from an out-of-control car. When some online commenters said that it was the policeman’s job to protect the people, suggesting his death was part of his duty, many other commenters were angered with these comments. By featuring the ‘webfriends’ term in this headline, the publication shows it sides with those ‘webfriends’ who mourn the policeman’s death and who are angered about insensitive comments relating to his death.

Another story, headline above (“Shenyang policeman dies on duty, two netizens detained over insulting comments“), is about another policeman dying on duty due to an attack by a suspect, with two web users commenting that the person attacking the police was a “hero” for doing so. The headline states that “two netizens insulting [police] have been detained” – in such a case, the media report shows a distance towards the commenters – ‘webfriends’ would surely not be used to refer to them.

All in all, it is clear that words such as netizen or wangyou, although they might sound outdated in an English-language context, are anything but outdated in the Chinese context.

Nearly five years after The Atlantic posted its anti-‘netizen’ article, claiming the word “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading,” recent uses of the term and its ubiquity in (Chinese) media show that it was perhaps the author’s perspective that was flawed, rather than the term itself.

For the time to come, Chinese ‘netizens’ are here to stay.

We’d like to hear your stance! How do you feel about ‘netizens,’ or would you rather see a more frequent use of the original wangmin term? Fill out the poll below:

Coming Soon

By Manya Koetse

With contribution from Jessica Sun at Chinatalk.

References

Hauben, Michael and Ronda Hauben. 1997. Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA.

Jones, Paul Anthony. 2013. Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words.

Massa, Felipe G. 2017. “Guardians of the Internet: Building and Sustaining the Anonymous Online Community.”Organization Studies 38 (7): 959 –988.

Shen, Yiping. 2015. “Netizens, Counter-Memories, and Internet Literature into the New Millennium.” In: Public Discourses of Contemporary China. Chinese Literature and Culture in the World, Chapter 4. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.


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Backgrounder

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

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

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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


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* 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.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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