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The Rise of Facial Recognition in China’s Real Estate Market

Some homebuyers counter the rise of facial recognition technology in real estate offices by wearing helmets during their visit.

Manya Koetse

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The issue of Chinese real estate agents using facial recognition techniques to collect information about their clients has sparked privacy concerns among Chinese social media users.

 
– By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Bobby Fung
 

A recent news report by Southern Metropolis Daily exposes how more and more real estate offices in China are working with facial recognition technologies to collect personal information about their prospective clients.

This is not the first time that the widespread use of facial-recognition techniques in the real estate industry receives attention in Chinese media. In 2019, some blogs already raised concerns over the use of such techniques and the negative impact it could have on homebuyers.

But why would the real estate industry benefit from buying expensive face recognition systems?

One reason is that these AI techniques could earn those within the industry a lot of money while reducing time-consuming conflicts over commission fees.

Using facial recognition within the real estate industry solves existing problems regarding the practice of commissions and splits in compensation, as the techniques can register when, where, and how often a certain client visited, and through which channels the eventual property purchase was made.

Besides the fact that the registration of biometric information violates the privacy of visitors, it could also mean they, as homebuyers, are losing out on big money. First-time visitors, not yet registered by the smart facial recognition cameras, can get much higher discounts.

The report by Southern Metropolis Daily claims that homebuyers could end up paying up to 300,000 yuan ($45,560) more when buying property if their face was previously recorded.

This is, among others, because agencies make a distinction between homebuyers who first come to view a property following a real estate agent’s own marketing campaign (a ‘natural visitor’ 自然到访客户) and those who have come through an intermediary (‘渠道客户’). In the latter case, the company also has to pay a commission fee to the intermediary.

This system has led to some potential homebuyers wearing helmets when visiting a real estate agency. Images of a certain ‘Brother Helmet’ (头盔哥) viewing property previously attracted attention online.

One of the companies that is mentioned by Southern Metropolis Daily as providing this kind of smart camera systems to companies is the Shenzhen-based Myunke (Mingyuan Yunke 明源云客), an internet company focusing on the “intelligent transformation and upgrading” of real estate marketing.

On Weibo, dozens of commenters suggest that the use of these techniques in China’s real estate industry is already widespread, with some sharing their own experiences as homebuyers and others saying: “I work in this industry, and it’s true.”

“Where’s our privacy?! This is too scary!”, others write, with some saying that the root of the problem lies in China’s “overly lax privacy protection.”

The ubiquity of commercial use of facial recognition has been attracting more attention recently amid rising privacy concerns.

One example is the use of built-in smart cameras by digital advertisement billboards, which measure customers’ reactions to advertisements. These digital billboard record, for example, if people look at the advertisement, how long they stay interested, and if they are male or female.

Earlier this week, a court in Hangzhou ordered a local wildlife park to delete the facial recognition data of one of its patrons, saying it was “unnecessary” and “lacked legitimacy.” An associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University named Guo Bing sued the safari park in 2019 for using mandatory facial recognition systems to register him and his wife as park visitors.

As reported by Sixth Tone, Guo decided to file this lawsuit on the grounds that the park had violated China’s consumer rights protection law by collecting sensitive personal information without the permission of its patrons.

In light of the heightened concerns around privacy and commercial use of facial recognition, a draft law to ban facial recognition systems in residential communities was recently submitted to the local legislation department in Hangzhou. This move may signal a stricter overview or even ban of mandatory collection of facial scans in residential areas.

Whether or not the use of facial recognition systems in real estate sales will be curbed any time soon is unclear. Some experts have pointed out, however, that the necessity and legitimacy of employing such techniques – which only protect the interests of the company and not the interest nor rights of the clients – is highly questionable.

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©2020 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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    Olivier

    December 20, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    Very interesting trends.
    We see from our clients, that more and more real estate companies offer VR experience to their client for oversea real estate.
    basically you can visit the flat you want to purchase oversea with VR glass and see what it looks like. (with the sanitary situation, Chinese can not travel to invest oversea)

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China Digital

U.S. Embassy Launches WeChat Stickers Featuring Cartoon Eagle

A Weibo hashtag about the eagle stickers, that feature some phrases previously used by China’s Foreign Ministry, has now been taken offline.

Manya Koetse

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On January 30, the American Embassy in China announced the launch of its very own series of social media gifs, a special ’emoticon collection’ (表情包), featuring a little, somewhat silly cartoon eagle.

The U.S. Embassy launched the eagle series on WeChat and also announced the series on their Weibo account, writing that the eagle made its first public appearance in light of the festivities surrounding the Chinese New Year.

The eagle is called “Xiaomei” or “Little Mei” (鹰小美). The ‘mei’ is part of 美国 Měiguó, Chinese for the ‘United States,’ but měi also means beautiful and pretty.

The American embassy issued a total of 16 different animated stickers, and they’re intended to be used on Tencent’s WeChat, where users can download all kinds of different emoticons or stickers to use in conversations.

WeChat users often use many different animated stickers in conversations to express emotions, make jokes, or increase the festive mood (by sending out celebratory New Year’s or birthday etc gifs). Users can download new and preferred sticker packages through the app’s sticker section.

One sticker shows Xiaomei with a festive decoration with 福 () for blessing and prosperity, wishing everyone a happy start to the Chinese Lunar New Year. There are also stickers showing the texts “happy winter,” “hi,” and “thank you.”

Another sticker in the series that has triggered some online responses is one that shows the eagle with a surprised look, wiping its eyes, with the words “wait and see” written above. The Chinese expression used is 拭目以待 shìmù yǐdài, to eagerly wait for something to happen, literally meaning to wipe one’s eyes and wait.

This same expression was often used by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) during press conferences, and he also used it in 2022 when responding to questions related to Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan and how the Chinese military would respond (e.g. he first used “wait and see” in the context of waiting to see if Pelosi would actually dare to go to Taiwan or not). But Zhao also used “please wait and see” (请大家拭目以待) when foreign reporters asked him how China would respond to the announced U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics in 2021.

The Little Mei emoji triggered the most responses as some netizens felt it was meant as a sneer to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

One of Little Mei’s quotes is also “remain calm” (保持冷静 bǎochí lěngjìng), which was – perhaps coincidentally – also often used by Zhao in the context of the war in Ukraine and to refer to other international conflicts or tensions (“all parties should remain calm”). The animated sticker also has olive branches growing behind the eagle.

It recently became known that Zhao, who became known as the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomat, was removed as the Foreign Ministry spokesperson and was moved to the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.

Especially in the context of Zhao leaving his post, some wondered why the U.S. Embassy would use phrases related to his press conferences for their new emoticons.

Although some people suggested the WeChat stickers were not launched in China with good intentions, others appreciated the humorous visuals and felt it was funny. Some also joked that America was infiltrating Chinese social media with its cultural export (“文化输出”), and others wondered if they could not also introduce some other stickers with more Chinese Foreign Ministry popular phrases on them.

A hashtag related to the topic made its rounds on Weibo on Tuesday (#美驻华大使馆上线鹰小美表情包#), but the topic suddenly was taken offline on Tuesday evening local time, along with some of the media reports about the remarkable WeChat series.

The WeChat stickers are still available for downloading by scanning the QR code below through WeChat.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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China and Covid19

Video Shows Real-Time “Departure” Information Board at Chinese Crematorium

From “cremation in process” to “cooling down,” the digital display shows the progress of the cremation to provide information to those waiting in the lobby. The crematorium ‘departure’ board strikes a chord with many.

Manya Koetse

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A video showing a live display screen announcing the names and status of the deceased at a Yunnan crematorium has been making its rounds on Chinese social media, from WeChat to Weibo, where one version of the video received over 1,7 million views.

Somewhat similar to a real-time platform departure display on train stations, the screen shows the waiting number of the deceased person, their name, gender, the name of the lounge/room (if any) for families, the name of the crematorium chamber, and the status of the cremation process. Below in the screen, it says “the final journey of a warm life” (温暖人生的最后旅程).

For example, the screen displays the names of a Mr. Chen and a Mr. Li; their bodies were in the process of being cremated (火化中), while other cremations were marked as “completed” (完成) or “cooling down” (降温中).

Through such a screen, located in the crematorium lobby, family members and loved ones can learn about the progress of the cremation of the deceased.

The video, recorded by a local on Jan. 7, received many comments. Among them, some people commented on the information board itself, while others simply expressed grief over those who died and the fragility of life. Many felt the display was confronting and it made them emotional.

“It makes me really sad that this how people’s lives end,” one commenter said, with another person replying that the display also shows you still need to wait in line even when you’re dead.

“I didn’t expect the screens [in the crematorium] to be like those in hospitals, where patients are waiting for their turn,” another Weibo user wrote. “It would be better if the names were hidden, like in the hospitals, to protect the privacy of the deceased,” another person replied.

Others shared their own experiences at funeral parlors also using such information screens.

Another ‘departure display’ at a Chinese crematorium, image shared by Weibo user.

“My grandfather passed away last September, and when we were at the undertaker’s, the display was also jumping from one name to the other and we could only comfort ourselves knowing that he was among those who lived a relatively long life.”

“Such a screen, it really makes me sad,” another commenter from Guangxi wrote, with others writing: “It’s distressing technology.”

Although the information screen at the crematorium is a novelty for many commenters, the phenomenon itself is not necessarily related to the Covid outbreak and the number of Covid-related deaths; some people share how they have seen them in crematoriums before, and funeral parlor businesses have used them to provide information to families since at least 2018.

According to an article published by Sohu News, more people – especially younger ones – have visited a funeral home for the first time in their lives recently due to the current Covid wave, also making it the first time for them to come across such a digital display.

The online video of such an information board has made an impact at a time when crematoriums are crowded and families report waiting for days to bury or cremate their loved ones, with especially a large number of elderly people dying due to Covid.

On Jan. 4, one social media user from Liaoning wrote:

I really suggest that the experts go to the crematoriums to take a look. There is no place to put the deceased, they’re parked outside in temporary containers, there’s no time left to hold a farewell ceremony and you can only directly cremate, and for those who were able to have a ceremony, they need to finish within ten minutes (..) At the funeral parlor’s big screen, there were eight names on every page, and there were ten pages for all the people in line that day, I stood there for half an hour and didn’t see the name of the person I was waiting for pop up anymore.”

As the video of the display in the crematorium travels around the internet, many commenters suggest that it is not necessarily the real-time ‘departure’ board itself that bothers them, but how it shows the harsh reality of death by listing the names of the deceased and their cremation status behind it. Perhaps it is the contrast between the technology of the digital display boards and the reality of the human vulnerability that it represents that strikes a chord with people.

One blogger who reposted the video on Jan. 13 wrote: “Life is short, cherish the present, let’s cherish what we have and love yourself, love your family, and love this world.” Among dozens of replies, some indicate that the video makes them feel uncomfortable.

Another commenter also wrote:

I just saw a video that showed an electronic display at a crematorium, rolling out the names of the deceased and the stage of the cremation. One name represents the ending of a life. And it just hit me, and my tears started flowing. I’m afraid of parting, I’m afraid of loss, I just want the people I love and who love me to stay by my side forever. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid I’ll be alone one day, and that nobody will ever make me feel warm again.”

One person captured why the information board perhaps causes such unease: “The final moments that people still spent on this earth take place on the electronic screen in the memorial hall of the funeral home. Then, they are gone without a sound.”

 

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By Manya Koetse 
with contributions by Zilan Qian

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.

©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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