A Sesame Credit score on a WeChat Moments feed.
If the image above seems familiar to you, you’ve probably heard of Sesame Credit, China’s bold new way of quantifying ‘patriotism’. There’s a lot of scary things going on in China but this is definitely up on the list. But is that a knee jerk reaction? What are the repercussions? How does it work? Well, let me give you a brief overview.
How does Sesame credit work?
Sesame credit is a service offered by the online retailer Alibaba, they operate similarly to how Amazon operates in the west, but on a much bigger scale. The app itself pulls the information from a payment service Alipay, which if you couldn’t guess by the name, is used by Alibaba. But there are some misconceptions about the system.
The Sesame Credit system is based on 5 key pillars [ref]
- Purchase Amount
- Personal information
- Timely bill payment
- Timely credit payment
None of this seems inherently bad, in fact some of it is just how a normal credit score works, so where does the dystopian fear come from? Extra credit did a video some time back about the perceived system.
Extra Credits on Sesame Credit
For those who didn’t watch the video, Sesame Credit is portrayed as a Orwellian system to gamify patriotism and obedience. You, and your friends are expected to dump friends with low scores to keep yours high, but Sesame credit promotes the opposite, the more friends you recruit the higher your score. Also, purchases aren’t tracked for this system, only amount, so whether you’re buying videos games or local produce, if the quantity is the same your score goes up.
Rewards for Sesame Credit.
- 5 day trial of SVIP
- 100 yuan bonus when booking hotels
- Renting cars without deposits
- Easier access to loans
- A Visa to Luxembourg?
Some of these seem more likely than others and there have been reports of people getting Visa’s to the Philippines as well. But overall these are pretty tame, it is an opt-in system after all. The confusion about the Orwellian big brother system seems to be far from the truth, and you’re almost right, but there’s a few more sides to this story.
Tencent Gets In On The Game
Here’s where things start to get strange. If you’ve heard of League of Legends, this is probably another familiar site. Property of Tencent
Tencent is a massive Chinese social media corporation. Many westerners that know Tencent, know it through League of Legends which is a child company of Tencent, as well as the popular game Smite.
Tencent also launched its own credit system, but this one has access to everything you say and do on its web services. This is where the fear of Sesame Credit stems from, but they’re in fact two separate entities. Users with friends who have low scores will also see their scores suffer, so there’s an incentive to silence and distance yourself from some people. This allows for the suffocation of ideas and practices the government and Tencent might not like. Again, this is not a mandatory service, you don’t have to use their websites, the same way you don’t have to use Facebook, but most people do. WeChat is Tencent’s social media giant, with 1.1 billion accounts and 570 million daily users. Only 70 million of its total users use WeChat outside of China, so it’s a pretty pervasive system.[ref]
Okay, that sounds bad. But it gets worse.
Chine seems to like the idea, because it announced that by 2020 it would have its own operational Credit Scoring system[ref]. The purpose of the purported credit system is to guide ideology and construct sincerity among its citizens. This, to me seems like political double speak for “We want what the west thought we had” Which is the gamified social obedience credit score.
These opt in systems are dangerous for that reason, it gets people used to the idea of being ranked by your patriotism and ideals. It gets people used to being rewarded for doing things to increase their scores, and being ‘disciplined’ for having a low score. With these systems consolidated, China would have a super powerful spy tool to watch and rank all of their citizens, and with the way Sesame credit is going, there won’t be much backlash.
There are a few other similar, and equally scary things out there in China. Like a websearch that allows you to identify individuals with poor scores, and tax evasions. This application is actually back by China’s major bank, as well as Alibaba on the tech side. We’re already seeing unions between these massive corporations, how long until the government finally steps in on the deal?
What does this mean for me?
Well, not much to be honest. In this case the big scary threat is in a far off, culturally different land. Scoring people like this likely won’t be reaching North America and Europe any time soon. The culture of government oversight is a bit different here. When the government does it secretly, people seem to be more alright with it, based off of the current reactions to the NSA. Sure there was huge backlash at first, but where is the outrage now? Backing this up, Facebook tried a similar system, but it was quickly cut after much backlash, and poor projections [ref].
However there may come a time where something like China’s system comes to us. Hopefully we can see it for what it is, a massive invasion of privacy, and prevent its implementation. But who knows what the future holds.