Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking

Mara Hvistendahl at Wired: “…During the past 30 years, by contrast, China has grown to become the world’s second largest economy without much of a functioning credit system at all. The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central banking regulator, maintains records on millions of consumers, but they often contain little or no information. Until recently, it was difficult to get a credit card with any bank other than your own. Consumers mainly used cash….

In 2013, Ant Financial executives retreated to the mountains outside Hangzhou to discuss creating a slew of new products; one of them was Zhima Credit. The executives realized that they could use the data-collecting powers of Alipay to calculate a credit score based on an individual’s activities. “It was a very natural process,” says You Xi, a Chinese business reporter who detailed this pivotal meeting in a recent book, Ant Financial. “If you have payment data, you can assess the credit of a person.” And so the tech company began the process of creating a score that would be “credit for everything in your life,” as You explains it.

Ant Financial wasn’t the only entity keen on using data to measure people’s worth. Coincidentally or not, in 2014 the Chinese government announced it was developing what it called a system of “social credit.” In 2014, the State Council, China’s governing cabinet, publicly called for the establishment of a nationwide tracking system to rate the reputations of individuals, businesses, and even government officials. The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020, and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics. The State Council calls it a “credit system that covers the whole society.”…

In 2015 Ant Financial was one of eight tech companies granted approval from the People’s Bank of China to develop their own private credit scoring platforms. Zhima Credit appeared in the Alipay app shortly after that. The service tracks your behavior on the app to arrive at a score between 350 and 950, and offers perks and rewards to those with good scores. Zhima Credit’s algorithm considers not only whether you repay your bills but also what you buy, what degrees you hold, and the scores of your friends. Like Fair and Isaac decades earlier, Ant Financial executives talked publicly about how a data-driven approach would open up the financial system to people who had been locked out, like students and rural Chinese. For the more than 200 million Alipay users who have opted in to Zhima Credit, the sell is clear: Your data will magically open doors for you….

Often, data brokers are flat-out wrong. The data broker Acxiom, which provides some information about what it collects on a site called, has me pegged as a single woman with a high school education and a “likely Las Vegas gambler,” when in fact I’m married, have a master’s degree, and have never even bought a lottery ticket. But it is impossible to challenge these assessments, since we’re never told that they exist. I know more about Zhima Credit’s algorithm than I do about how US data brokers rate me. This is, as Pasquale points out in his book The Black Box Society, essentially a “one-way mirror.”…(More)”.