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Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks

While English-language media describe China’s social credit system as a Black Mirror-like authoritarian implementation, Chinese social media users seem to focus more on the advantages than the burdens.

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Chinese social credit system has become a hot topic – especially in foreign media. But what’s true and what’s not? How is the issue discussed on Chinese social media? What’s on Weibo explores some recent developments in the emerging field of social credit in China.

“Big brother is watching,” some English-language media write, others compare it to ‘Black Mirror,’ while some call it righout “creepy”; China’s emerging social credit system is an issue that many foreign journalists and China watchers are currently concerned with – sometimes even alleging that the Chinese social credit system is “as bizarre as it sounds.”

On Chinese media and social media platforms, there seem to be very different attitudes on social credit in China. Apart from official stances that say it promotes a “harmonious society,” netizens also seem to focus much more on the perks than the alleged dangers of social credit records.

Promotional image for “Tencent Credit.”

Jeremy Daum at China Law Translate published an insightful article (must-read!) in late 2017 in which he made the point that foreign media are grossly conflating Sesame Credit (aka Zhima Credit) and Social Credit, and in doing so, are misrepresenting what is happening in China regarding these systems. So what actually is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the social credit in China?

 

Sesame Credit versus Social Credit

 

There is so much Chinese terminology relating to social credit in China that it is perhaps not that surprising that the lines have become blurred between the actual Social Credit system and a number of private programs.*

In a recent article titled “China’s Social Credit System Is Not What You Think It Is” (in Dutch), ChinaTalk author Ed Sander (@edsander) sets out existing misconceptions about China’s credit systems.

The most important existing misconception is that it is often suggested that there is just one ‘social credit system’ in China. In reality, there are two separate systems that operate independently; the commercial credit systems (such as the Sesame Credit by Alibaba) and the Social Credit system by the Chinese government, which it has promised to roll out nationally by 2020.

 
Sesame Credit (芝麻信用)
 

The system that has arguably been most discussed in foreign media is Sesame Credit (Zhīma xìnyòng 芝麻信用), 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.

As Jeremy Daum points out, Sesame Credit is one of the business trials that has been granted permission by the People’s Bank of China to experiment with individual credit reporting. NB: The central bank has its own Credit Reference Centre since 2006, which is tasked with operating a national commercial and consumer credit reporting system to enable financial institutions to assess borrowers’ creditworthiness.

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.

It is not mandatory for users to opt into Sesame Credit. Some have compared the system to a loyalty program, although it is a bit more than that. Since 2015, for example, Sesame Credit also cooperates with the popular online dating service company Baihe.com (百合网), so that people can link their dating profile to their credit score.

One of the reasons why foreign media have written so much about Sesame Credit as an ‘Orwellian system’ is that it incorporates a publicly available ‘blacklist’ into its scoring process. The ‘blacklist’ is a Chinese courts’ list with the names of people that have an effective court justice against them.

Inclusion on this list can make users’ existing Sesame Credit drop dramatically, which would make people miss out on all perks of having a high Sesame Sore, e.g. no deposits in renting cars, bicycles, or booking hotels (Xinhua 2017).

Some media* have conflated this with the overall negative side effects of being on list of court debtors; it is not Sesame Credit, but the Social Credit schemes that can punish citizens by revoking certain government benefits and putting them on heightened scrutiny until they repay their debts (Daum 2017b).

Besides Sesame Credit, there are also other corporations rolling out credit scores. One of them is Tencent Credit (腾讯信用), which was also established in 2015 and had a trial running in January of 2018.

 
Social Credit System (社会信用系统)
 

China’s Social Credit system is currently not a national one – it is outlined to be implemented nationwide by 2020 – but it is being experimented with in various regions and cities across China.

Screenshot of the official Suzhou social credit website.

Daum (2017) describes it as a ‘policy’ or ‘ideology of data use’ rather than a ‘system’, and explains it as “the Chinese Party-State’s shorthand for a broad range of efforts to improve market security and public safety by increasing integrity and mutual trust in society.”

Chinese social management expert Samantha Hoffman says the system is just “adding technology and adding a formality to the way the Party already operates,” which reiterates a stance by scholar Rogier Creemers, who claims that the system itself is not ‘new’ and can be compared to decade-old ways in which the government is keeping a tab on its citizens (Creemers et al 2016).

The Social Credit ‘system’ essentially will be focused on accumulating and integrating information, and will create measures that encourage ‘trustworthy behavior’ and punishes those who are not ‘trustworthy’ (Daum 2017). It is unlikely that the collected personal data will be reflected in one single score, as has been suggested by various media.

Earlier this year, the PRC’s National Development & Reform Commission and People’s Bank of China released a list of the 12 top cities implementing Social Credit experiments this year, namely: Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Yiwu, and Rongcheng.

Rongcheng, a county-level city in Shandong province, has been at the center of a recent Foreign Policy article by Mistreanu (2018), which describes how many Rongcheng citizens have already embraced the Social Credit pilot, and seem happy with how it improves the community.

The Rongcheng Credit system is one of both rewards and punishments, as also described of other bigger local systems by Daum (2017b). Online defamation or abuse of family members will negatively affect one’s societal credit, whereas taking care of one’s parents or positively influencing one’s neighborhood will lead to better rankings. In Rongcheng, top rankers are praised by being displayed on a board near the village center (Mistreanu 2018).

 

Sesame & Sharing

 

China’s social credit system and Sesame Credit are a hot topic on social media networks such as Twitter or Facebook, where they are often discussed in negative ways. On Sina Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms, however, both topics are discussed very differently. Sesame Credit is mostly linked to fun extras and the Chinese sharing economy.

At time of writing, Sesame Credit has 240.000 fans on its official Weibo account (@芝麻信用), where they promote the most recent benefits to users with higher credit scores, such as the possibility to get Hello Bicycle (哈罗单车) rental bikes without deposits.

Some netizens discuss the recent cooperation between Ford and Alibaba, in which people with a Sesame Credit Score over 700 points can test drive the new Ford Explorer for three days for free.

Apart from Hello Bike or Ford, there is a myriad of other brands that seem happy to participate in the Sesame Credit system and the idea of Shared Economy.

Mobrella, an operator of umbrella sharing services for urban consumers, allows Sesame Credit users with a score over 600 to use their umbrellas without paying deposits. Anbai (按呗), a company focused on shared massage chairs, also lets 600+ scorers use their relaxation chairs for free.

“Thumbs up for sharing [economy]!”, some netizens comment.

The benefits of a higher Sesame Credit score go beyond brand services. In places such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, or Wenzhou, for example, people with a credit score of respectively 600 and 500 can go to the local library and borrow books for free without paying any deposit. Some places offer public self-service booths where people can borrow their books without having to go to the library.

Self-service library in Shanghai for people with more than 600 Zhima Credit score (via Sohu).

At the Zhejiang University Hospital, patients with a Sesame Credit score over 650 can enjoy privileges such as seeing a doctor first and worry about payment later, or free use of available wheelchairs. In Shenzhou and other cities, people with a 650+ score can rent cars without paying deposits.

There are countless examples of how a higher credit score is making life easier and more convenient for people in dozens of cities across China, which is why a score of approximately 650 is something people strive for. “I overheard some people on the subway today discussing how they could raise their Sesame Credit score to rank over 640,” one Weibo user says: “I’d never even checked my score, but somehow it currently is as high as 810!”

 

Karma & Credit Scores

 

Different from Sesame Credit, the national and/or local social credit system is not discussed much on Chinese social media. When it is discussed, there seems to be more focus on the punitive side of the system than on the rewards.

In early May, for example, a young man from Shanxi was the first local person to be put on the so-called “lose trust blacklist” (失信黑名单), and was banned from traveling by train for 180 days as part of the Social Credit implementation, after jumping over the ticket barriers at Yangling Station. Many commenters supported the ban, saying: “This kind of people with no regard for the rules should be banned from traveling indefinitely.”

“Blacklisted”

Another example is that Guangdong authorities, on May 22, announced the implementation of a special blacklist for people violating the rules of the bike-sharing industry. Those vandalizing a bike, for instance, could be banned from using any bike-sharing service and their social credit will be negatively affected. A top commenter wrote: “Excellent, absolutely excellent – I hope this will be implemented all across the country.”

A recent experiment by Shenzhen police, in which facial recognition technologies were used to catch jaywalkers, also attracted the attention on social media. State newspapers reported that these kinds of traffic violations will also influence people’s personal credit in the future.

Although many people see the social credit systems working as a sort of ‘law of karma’, not all netizens agree. One person responding to the jaywalkers’ case says: “When it comes to traffic violations – we have relevant laws for those. Making them affect one’s personal credit seems to be over the top.”

 

Credit Cities

 

What is noteworthy about the nascent Social Credit systems on Weibo is that many local governments have already set up their own Social Credit Implementation accounts – some have even already been registered in 2014.

Zhuhai (Guangdong) has its own “Social Credit System & Market Control System” Weibo account (@珠海市两建办); there’s an account by Wenzhou (Guangdong) (@温州-谢枫); Suzhou (Jiangsu) (@苏州工业园区信用平台); Suqian (Jiangsu) (@诚信宿迁); Wuhu (Anhui) (@信用芜湖), and others.

Although these accounts are not yet popular, without many fans or discussions, their online presence does signal that Weibo might have hundreds of similar accounts in the future when the Social Credit system is implemented nationwide, with cities informing citizens of new measures and/or guideline relating to the credit system through social media.

With Hangzhou currently being the top city when it comes to building the social credit system, along with the city closely working together with Sesame Credit, it has now even been labeled “Credit City” (信用之城) by Chinese media.

Rather than framed as “creepy” or “bizarre” by foreign media, it is words such as “safety”, “harmony”, and “convenience” that are mostly used by Chinese media to describe these avant-garde cities, where “trust” and “credit” are seemingly becoming a crucial asset for citizens who care about ‘karma’ and ‘personal perks.’

“I support it,” one Weibo commenter writes: “I hope it will have a positive influence on society.”

By Manya Koetse

* Some Terminology:
‘Social credit system’: 社会信用体系
‘Sesame Credit’: 芝麻信用
‘Credit scores’: 信用评分
‘Personal credit systems’: 个人征信系统
‘Credit information services’: 征信服务
‘People’s personal credit structure’: 民间个人征信机构

* Some media such as The Independent in: “China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives.”

References (others linked directly within text)

Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.

Creemers, Rogier; Peter Marris; Samantha Hoffman; Pamela Kyle Crossley. 2016. “What Could China’s ‘Social Credit System’ Mean for its Citizens?” Foreign Policy, Aug 15
http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/15/what-could-chinas-social-credit-system-mean-for-its-citizens/ [26.5.18].

Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].

Daum, Jeremy. 2017b. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].

Mistreanu, Simina. 2018. “Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory.” Foreign Policy, April 3 http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/03/life-inside-chinas-social-credit-laboratory/ [26.5.18].

NDRC. 2018. “首批社会信用体系建设示范城市名单公布.” http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/, Jan 9 http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/xwzx/xwfb/201801/t20180109_873409.html [26.5.18].

Sander, Ed. 2018. “China’s Sociaal Kredietsysteem is niet wat je denkt.” ChinaTalk, May 5 http://www.chinatalk.nl/chinas-sociaal-kredietsysteem-is-niet-wat-je-denkt/ [26.5.18].

Sohu. 2017. “芝麻信用分600以上可以免押金借书了.” Sohu, Sept 13 http://www.sohu.com/a/191704017_402387 [27.5.18].

Xinhua. 2017. “Chinese courts use technology to tighten noose on debt defaulters.” China Daily, Oct 4 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/04/content_32830450.htm [26.5.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “深圳交警“刷脸”治交通违章 处罚或将挂钩个人信用.” Xinhua News, May 8 http://www.xinhuanet.com/local/2017-04/24/c_1120864742.htm [26.5.18].

Xiao, Eva. 2018. “Tencent’s new credit system to use payments, social data.” Tech in Asia, Jan 31 https://www.techinasia.com/tencent-credit-launch [26.5.18].

Zhang Yuzhe, Peng Qinqin and Dong Tongjian. 2017. “China Gives Little Credit to Companies Handpicked to Develop Credit-Reporting Sector.” Caixin Global, May 14 https://www.caixinglobal.com/2017-05-15/101089851.html [26.5.18].


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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, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

16 Years Ago Today: The Lanjisu Fire That Changed China’s ‘Wangba’ Era

The tragic Lanjisu fire led to a nationwide crackdown on internet cafes in China.

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A Beijing internet cafe fire that killed 25 young people in 2002 has become part of China’s collective memory: it was a shift in China’s internet cafe era. Today marks the 16th anniversary of this tragic event.

On June 16, 2002, at 2:40 a.m., a devastating fire broke out at a second-story Internet cafe (wangba 网吧) in Beijing’s Haidian, the city’s university district.

News of the tragic fire shocked the entire nation. The fire had instantly killed twenty people and severely injured 17, of whom five later died in the hospital.

All of the dead and injured people were students; 12 of them were from the prep school of the Beijing University of Science and Technology (Wang 2009, 86).

Lanjisu fire, June 16 2002.

Although it did not take long for firefighters to arrive that night, the fire at the Lanjisu (蓝极速, ‘Blue speed’) internet cafe was mainly so disastrous because windows were firmly secured with iron burglar-proof bars, leaving no option for people to escape. The only door was locked; it happened more often that wangba owners would (illegally) operate overnight behind locked doors (Qiu 2009, 33).

Investigators later ruled arson as cause of the fire at the cafe, which was located at Xueyuan Road 20. Traces of gasoline were discovered at the scene, and two teenage male suspects (13-year-old Zhang and 14-year-old Song) were arrested two days later.

The teenage boys were middle school students who used to play games at the internet cafe, but had gotten into a quarrel with other visitors and were not allowed to come in. To take ‘revenge’, they had purchased 1.8 liter of gasoline at a nearby gas station just 3-4 hours before they committed arson.

One of the suspects in 2002 (people.com.cn).

It was later revealed that the two boys both came from poor and shattered families, involving drugs and crime (Lifeweek 2003; Qiu 2015).

In August of 2002, a Beijing court sentenced the 14-year-old boy (Song X.) to life imprisonment, while the 13-year-old was sent to a juvenile re-education center as he was under the age of 14.

A third person, a 17-year-old female also named Zhang, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for being an accomplice; she gave the boys money to but the petroleum, and knew what they were up to. A fourth minor, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Liu, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for being part of the arson plan. The internet cafe owner was sentenced to 3 years in prison for breaching business and safety rules. The gas station was fined 50,000 yuan for selling gasoline to two minors (Lifeweek 2003; Sina 2008).

 

A turning point in the wangba boom

 

The Haidian Lansiju fire had a big impact on China’s booming internet cafe culture. Internet cafes had been mushrooming in China since the mid and late 1990s. It was the time of Tencent’s highly popular instant messaging software OICQ and multiplayer online games. By 2002 there were thousands of wangba across Chinese cities, many of them unlicensed and illegal, with no fire control equipment.

Internet cafe in 1990s (new.qq.com).

The Lanjisu fire made the problem of China’s wangba a national concern. Not just the unsafe conditions were a reason for worry, but also the impact the internet cafes had on China’s youth, with students spending days on end playing online games in these smoky rooms, leading to a rise in school absence and internet addiction. Beijing’s vice mayor Liu Zhihua condemned internet cafes as “opium dens” for the country’s youth.

The fire led to a huge crackdown on illegal internet cafes. The Beijing authorities launched a campaign that would stop the development of new internet cafes and that would screen all existing wangba one by one, and to close all unlicensed businesses immediately and to confiscate their operational tools (Wang 2009, 87). Across the country, approximately 400,000 internet cafes were closed (Sina 2008).

Second hand confiscated wangba computers (http://www.hkcd.com/).

It also led to the implementation of new rules, such as that there could no longer be internet cafes within a 200-meter radius of schools, that minors were not allowed to enter, and that they had to be closed between midnight and 8 am (Venkatesh 2006, 55)

Since 2005, the remnants of the Lansiju internet cafe have been on display at the Haidian Safety Museum.

Image via People.cn.

The fire is remembered in China as the “6.16 Wangba Big Fire” (6·16网吧大火), and is still being discussed on Chinese social media to this day.

By Manya Koetse

References

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2009. Working-Class Network Society
Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2015 (2009). “Life and Death in the Chinese Informational City: The Challenges of Working-Class ICTs and the Information Have-less.” In: Living the Information Society in Asia, Erwin Alampay Alampay (ed), 130-157. ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Sina. 2008. “北京蓝极速网吧老板今安在.” Sina News, 29 Dec http://news.sina.com.cn/s/2008-12-29/100416941011.shtml [16.6.18].

Venkatesh, P. 2006. “China on the I-way.” In: Strategic Management: Concepts and Cases, Hitt, Duane & Hoskisson (eds), chapter 2. Mason: Thomson Higher Education.

Wang, Xueqin. 2009. “Internet Cafes. What else can be done in addition to rectification?” In: Good governance in China–a way towards social harmony : case studies by China’s rising leaders, edited by Wang Mengkui, Lchapter 8. London & New York: Routledge.

Zhuang, Shan 庄山, Ke Li 柯立, Li Wei 李伟, Wu Ang 巫昂. 2003 (2002). “两个纵火少年和25条生命” [“Two Minor Arsonists and 25 Lives”]. LifeWeek 2002 (26), online April 8 2003 http://www.lifeweek.com.cn/2003/0408/1594.shtml [16.6.2018].

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

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China Digital

Best VPNs for China Summer 2018

Just the two of them. The best VPNs for China in Summer 2018, recommended by What’s on Weibo.

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Earlier this year, we posted this top three of VPNs for China in January/February. We’re planning to post our favorites every five to six months or so from now for our resources & recommendations section, so please let us know your experiences with VPNs in China and which ones you like best – we’ll try it out and update our next list.

Most of our readers will know, but if you’re not sure what a VPN is: websites detect your location due to the IP address that identifies your network connection. With a VPN you can “trick the system” by using a virtual network address located in another country. To be able to access many websites from within China (e.g. Google services, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), you’ll need to download VPN services and install them on laptop/tablet/smartphone.

We’ve recommended multiple VPN’s before, but for this time there are just two names we’d like to recommend for their overall stable connections from China from our personal experience: ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

Do note, however, that if you access a VPN from within the PRC, it is always possible that there are interruptions and that some locations and services do not work. This also goes for these two names. Having more than one VPN service installed on your devices is one way to stay safe – we’ve purchased multiple VPN services at different times and occasionally needed to shift between services to stay connected.

 

NordVPN ($2.75 Summer Deal)

One of the main reasons why we decided to put this recommendation out here again, is actually because of NordVPN’s Summer deal, which is very attractive.

NordVPN currently offers a three-year plan for only $2.75 per month, which saves 77% compared to its other packages. (Not sure how long they’ll keep running this campaign, but here it is).

NordVPN is a well-trusted and easy-to-use VPN with great service. From our experience, the staff is always quick in replying and very friendly. The layout of the NordVPN application is also easy to use on desktop, mobile, and tablet.

Besides the current deal, NordVPN offers 1-month plans from $11.95 or 1-year plans from $5.75 per month. To purchase or read more about NordVPN click here.

 

Express VPN

Our other recommendation is ExpressVPN, which actually calls itself the “#1 Trusted leader in VPN.” It is a reliable service with mostly steady connections depending on what location you select; ExpressVPN uses the ‘smart location’ button that helps you pick the best location to connect to from where you are. (From our experience, connections are often more stable on 4G than on a random bar wifi.)

ExpressVPN has excellent service and frequent updates for desktop, mobile, and tablet. They offer single month services starting from $12.95, 6-month plans from $9.99/month, and 1-year plans from $8.32/month.

The “30 Days Risk-Free” promise of ExpressVPN makes the barrier to try it out much lower. If you are not satisfied, they’ll get you your money back without any questions asked.

To read more about ExpressVPN and purchase it, check here.

By Manya Koetse

NB: This post is not a sponsored post. These recommendations may, however, include an affiliate link that at absolutely no additional cost whatsoever to you allows What’s on Weibo to receive a small percentage in case you purchase the service. (Which also helps a bit to keep our site going, so it’s win-win!)

Do you think we should recommend another VPN and want to share your experiences? We’re open to try it out and add to this list – feel free to contact us.

Feature image: By pelican from Tokyo, Japan – Adventure World, Shirahama, Japan, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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.

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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. ©2014-2017

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