In a lengthy new feature report, WIRED magazine tells of how Chinese culture has changed over the past five years due to the advent of mobile pay systems and the explosive growth of social media.
In fact, it’s an in-depth look at how China’s experimentation with “social ranking scores”—three-digit numbers similar to credit ratings in the U.S.—and how the Chinese are eager to earn the perks that come to those who score high enough. In a country of 1.8 billion people, the perks go well beyond occasional conveniences.
But, they also come with a price.
Data sharing between app producers allows the government to learn almost every detail of a person’s life based on his or her social media and mobile payment activity. If that sounds “Orwellian” or like it came straight out of the script of science fiction thriller, that’s because it probably did—but for the Chinese, it’s very much real life.
The author of the report writes:
I began to check my score obsessively, but because scores are only reevaluated monthly, the number didn’t budge. Each time I opened the app, I encountered an alarming orange screen. In the foreground was a gauge in the shape of a half-circle, with a dial showing that I had reached only a quarter of my potential. An article on the portal Sohu.com explained that my score put me in the category of “common folk.” The page read: “Cultural level is not high. Retired or nearly retired.” In China, where many elderly lost out on years of education during the Cultural Revolution, this was not a compliment. According to Sohu, only 5 percent of the population had scores worse than mine.
To see if I could do anything to pull my score up, I took a taxi one morning to a chic open-air shopping center outside Shanghai’s city center to meet with Chen Chen, a 30-year-old illustrator. Chen told a mutual friend on WeChat that she had an “excellent” rating on Zhima Credit, and I wanted to ask her counsel. We bought coffee and walked to an outdoor seating area. Chen wore a button-down shirt open over a white T-shirt and skinny jeans. Her hair was bleached to a straw yellow, and a line of sparkly eye shadow was swept under each eye. On Zhima Credit she clocked in at 710, and her background color was a calming sky blue.
She explained how to boost my score. “They will check what kind of friends you have,” she said. “If your friends are all high-score people, it’s good for you. If you have some bad-credit people as friends, it’s not nice.” After signing up for Alipay, I sent friend requests to all of my phone contacts. Only six people accepted. One of my new Alipay friends was a man I used to tutor in English and probably my wealthiest friend in Shanghai. He owned several businesses, a fleet of cars, and a spacious villa in a posh neighborhood. But another was my old tailor, who lived with her family in a single room in a dilapidated house, with piles of cloth obscuring the thin windows. Did the tailor’s impact on my score cancel out the businessman’s? And was I dragging both of them down?
Chen said she knew the scores of her close friends but not those of acquaintances or work colleagues. There are chat rooms where people with decent scores seek out other high scorers, presumably to boost their ratings. But in general, people simply make assumptions about which contacts have good credit and which are better left unfriended. Users like Chen hadn’t yet taken the step of shutting low scorers like me out of their network, she assured me. Zhima Credit was still fairly new, and an acquaintance’s low score might still be charitably explained, she said: “Maybe they just haven’t used it long enough.”
U.S. television broadcasts are frequently interrupted with advertisements touting Zhima Credit’s American cousin, the FICO Credit Score. Could the WIRED article be a harbinger of things to come in our own country?