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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.

Manya Koetse

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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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©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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