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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 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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China Digital

From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

Manya Koetse

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
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Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was first published by 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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China Digital

WeChat’s New Emoji Are Here (Including a Watermelon-Eating and Doge One)

WeChat’s new emoji are based on popular memes.

Manya Koetse

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On January 14, Tencent’s Wechat introduced new emoji to its existing emoji set. The new emoji include, among others, a watermelon-eating emoji and a smiling Shiba Inu.

On Weibo, the new emoji have become a topic of discussion under the hashtags “WeChat’s New Emoji” (#微信上线新表情#), “WeChat’s Watermelon Eating Emoji” (#微信上线吃瓜表情#), and “WeChat’s Dog Emoji” (#微信上线狗头表情#).

Different from the Unicode emoji (see Emojipedia), WeChat and Weibo have their own sets of emoji, although there is overlap.

The reason why especially the watermelon-eating and dog emoji are being discussed on social media, is because these emoji are based on popular internet memes.

“Eating watermelon” (吃瓜 chī guā) is an online expression that comes from “watermelon-eating masses” (吃瓜群众 chī guā qúnzhòng), which describes a common mentality of Internet users who have no idea what is actually going on but are still commenting or following online stories for their enjoyment – perhaps comparable to the “popcorn memes” that are ubiquitous on Western social media platforms.

The smiling dog has been around since 2013 and is known as the doge meme, based on a photo of a Shiba inu. The meme was originally spread on social media platforms such as Reddit, but then also became hugely popular in China, where it became a symbol of sarcasm (also read this Abacus article on this topic).

Other new emoji are the “wow” emoji, and others to express “ok,” “add oil,” “emm,” “oh!”

There’s also a “shehui shehui” (社会社会, lit. “society society”) emoji, which also comes from online culture and is a way among friends to (self-mockingly) talk about being ‘gangsters,’ ‘brothers.’ or ‘scoundrels.’

As the new emoji are still in their testing phase, not all WeChat users can use the new emoji yet, so you might have to wait a bit before being able to try them out.

By Manya Koetse, with thanks to @caaatchina
Follow @whatsonweibo

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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