Internet & Tech

Not to their credit

A salacious new feature causes red faces at Alipay

Lucy-Peng-w

Lucy Peng, an Alibaba cofounder

When Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial launched its personal credit rating system last year, Sesame Credit, it quickly formed a partnership with China’s most popular online dating site, Baihe. The pairing solved one of dating’s least romantic considerations: financial stability. Lonely-hearts with a high credit score could have their profiles featured more prominently on Baihe, and were more likely to find matches.

Last week, Ant Financial appeared to bring this idea in-house. On November 27 a new feature called ‘Circles’, or ‘Groups’, was introduced to Ant Financial’s Alipay app, enabling users to connect based on shared interests and then exchange messages and gifts. The function was evidently a direct assault on the mainstay business of Tencent, which runs a rival mobile payment platform within its social media colossus WeChat.

However, two of the most popular Alipay groups, ‘White Collar Diary’ and ‘Campus Diary’, lured users by plying a different sort of connection. Only women were allowed to post pictures in these groups – office workers in the former, and students in the latter. Within hours of going online the new Alipay platform was filled with photos of female users in suggestive poses or with little clothing.

According to state broadcaster CCTV, White Collar Diary was viewed 12 million times in its first day, while Campus Diary accumulated 15 million views. Some of the women asked viewers to use Alipay’s direct transfer function to send them “tips” in exchange for the titillation (a tangential evolution, perhaps, of this year’s scandal in which college students were being requested to provide nude photos as collateral to borrow from loan sharks, see WiC330).

In ‘White Collar Diary’, many of the women captioned their posts announcing that they were looking for “hook ups” or longer term partners. This evoked the strongest condemnation from netizens because only users with a Sesame credit score over 750 (a high rating) were allowed to comment on the photos, which was the only effective way to communicate with the owner. As a result, some accused Alipay of effectively converting itself into an online brothel for the wealthy.

Ant Financial has been secretive about precisely how it calculates a person’s Sesame credit rating, but the BBC reports it was more forthcoming in admitting an individual’s online shopping habits are an important factor. This suggests that in order to drive up your credit rating, and have a better chance of talking to these women, you need to buy more from Alibaba.

Initially Alipay sought to distance itself from these two groups, as well as the suggestion it was using titillation to entice consumers. The company told Caixin Weekly, “These Circles are operated by outside companies, and it is these operators that implemented the restrictions on comments.” But last week, in an internal memo later posted to Alipay’s weibo, executive chairwoman Lucy Peng issued a formal apology and vowed to remove the inappropriate photos. The same day, ‘White Collar Diary’ and ‘Campus Diary’ were gone.

However, the incident may have already done some damage to Alipay’s image, Peng worries. A day before her apology was posted, CCTV weighed in with a warning that, “internet platforms must know how to develop new capabilities, but they must also understand their [social] responsibilities”.

The women who solicited money through the controversial new service are quite fortunate that the blame has fallen on Alipay. Last week a woman was sentenced to four years in prison and fined Rmb100,000 for disseminating “obscene” content of herself engaging in a sexual act. The court ruled the woman had spread the material in order to further her popularity as a web host – a profession the government has waged a moral war against this year (see WiC313).

Nevertheless, Peng vowed not to let the temptresses off so easily. In her internal memo she said that those who had “maliciously posted photos that broke the bottom line” would have their accounts permanently suspended. That doesn’t bode well for the ladies’ credit ratings, but at least they’ll still be able to use WeChat Wallet.


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