Hand Holding IPhone With Chinese Flag

Is the Chinese Government Gamifying Civil Obedience?

The short answer:

… Maybe?

The long answer:

Last October, The ACLU released an article titled China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans which pointed out how the Chinese government is working with two other Chinese digital conglomerates, Alibaba and Tencent, to create the perfect system for the government to measure and control political obedience. What if this becomes the trend for all governments around the world? The issue resonated so strongly in the video game industry that our favorite show, Extra Credits, even released an episode to further spread the message.

Here’s the catch: None of it was true.

What is Sesame Credit?

Alibaba is a multi-billion dollar Chinese e-commerce conglomerate that released a new gamified system that measures and incentivizes its users to continue using its products called “Sesame Credit.” Essentially, it’s an arbitrary score that’s given to Alibaba users for spending money through their platform with some additional social elements that incentivizes you to make friends who have higher scores. As the system became more popular, Alibaba decided to use this opportunity to incentivize users to spend more money on things that are “good for you.” Products such as textbooks, locally grown produce, and educational software would give you more points than others products that are deemed less meaningful. With more points, you are rewarded with small perks, such as free internet access at an airport when you’re traveling. It’s a fun and gimmicky system that has received mass praise from Alibaba’s users on its beneficial incentives and reward systems.

What is the Chinese government’s 2020 plan?

Now enter a completely separate topic: the Chinese government’s plans for its new credit system. Last year, the Chinese State Council released their lengthy planning document detailing their initiatives for a brand new credit score system in 2020 that would additionally incentivize “sincerity.” (For Chinese speakers, “诚信” in its original form). The document was extremely vague in nature and did not clearly define the specific steps or technological pieces that the government intends to utilize for this policy’s implementation. However, it felt more like a motivational public announcement that served to inspire Chinese citizens to focus on honesty, candor, and financial security, rather than spending too much effort in obtaining individual financial returns.

Where did the paranoia come from?

Any person who reads the Chinese government’s new plans in detail would instantly draw the connection with what Alibaba is practicing with its Sesame Credit scoring system. However, as of now, these two systems are completely separate.

I asked my cousin who is a senior software developer in China to use his Sesame Credit at the local bank. The Bank of China turned him away and told him that they do not recognize Sesame Credit as a real form of credit scores and cannot be factored into their operations.


(Phone screenshots of my cousin’s Sesame Score.)

His Sesame Credit score is 736, which is in the “Extremely Good” category. On the right, you can see the types of rewards that comes with his high score, which includes having VIP service at an Alibaba affiliated hotel where his deposit is waived if he chooses to stay there. His benefits also include an Alibaba affiliated cash borrowing service that lets him borrow a large amount of cash if needed, and an Alibaba affiliated car rental service that gives him discounts on cars and bike rentals when he travels. The commonality among the rewards is that they are all Alibaba’s gimmicks to incentivize its users to continue using their products. This is comparable to how Wells Fargo wants you to both mortgage and bank with them, or how Google wants you to use both its search engine and its maps.

Does that mean we’re safe?

Well… no. This does not mean that these two separate initiatives will stay separate forever. Since the birth of democracy, our society had been deathly afraid of the concept of the totalitarian “big-government.” However, due to the nature of the responsibilities of a government, it’s in the government’s core nature to use tools to protect the well-being of the citizens it governs. Ultimately, it depends on the people who are leading the system. In my Twitter conversation on this topic with Yu-kai Chou, a gamification pioneer and public speaker, stated:

In reality, there are many giant organizations, such as Google and Facebook, that already collect vast amounts of information on each individual and have already used the data to target the individual in marketing. We each have a “Google Credit,” “Facebook Credit,” Amazon Credit,” so on. However, there are 3 major differences:

  1. These scores are not single credit scores. Instead, they’re simply pieces of data on our behavior.
  2. The data they track on us are not public.
  3. The general public trusts the leaders of these organizations to make the right decisions with the data.

The amount of data and power that companies like Google have on our society shadows the amount of power government has on our daily lives. We still feel fine with the data being collected because we trust these leaders with this power. The famous Chinese big data expert and Vice Present of Alibaba Group Zipei “Jack” Tu (涂子沛) once said, “data is not power. Data is the soil from which the future will grow on.”


So what is the long answer?

The long answer is that it doesn’t matter. Data and gamification are just forms of how our society will be in the future. Ultimately, it depends on the ones who use these tactics. World leaders will always have the choice to either use their powers for good or take advantage of their powers for personal gains. The fate of our lives have been and will always be determined by ourselves: the choices we make in the people we trust and what we give back to society.

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