Big brother meets big data

A glance at the country where several Western social networks are not accessible and doing a Google search is not allowed

Big brother meets big data

When big data meet “Big Brother”. This could be the summary of an article aimed at illustrating how much big data are essential to present-day China. Not just for business but particularly for the Chinese government planning. In the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo in Chinese), it is generally understood that big data “promise to reform the work of organizations and politics”. Here, when the government calls, the major internet companies are ready to respond. Let’s consider the fact that in a country holding 668 million internet users (according to government official estimates), the data obtainable from the network represent an appealing source of fresh information for anyone, from entrepreneurs to politicians, allowing a glimpse of the country.

An example? One of the most successful movie of all times, Tiny Times, a romantic comedy produced in 2013, which managed to gain 11,9 million dollars at the box office in one single day, was exactly the outcome of the exploitation of big data. Why? Because the producers, before shooting the movie, made a research on the network to determine the actors, the director and the type of publicity to propose in order to attract the attention of the youngest Chinese generation. Looking at the results, they got it right. However, while this represents a positive – and original – example of how to use big data, there are instances which are not focused in this direction.

Big data: exploitation and control
«In China, we deal with hundreds of billions data – Zhang Tong, the head of Baidu Big Data Lab, the most important search engine operating in China, recently told a Chinese online Magazine called CKGSB Knowledge – the potential is huge; we can build important models that can significantly help most businesses». Big data technology, in fact, is often used in conjunction with other innovative technologies like cloud or artificial intelligence.

From marketing to e-commerce, from technology to public health: in the last 5 years, a thriving number of big data has become available to these sectors. The most critical, however, think that who’s most interested in big data is the Chinese government. Those who live in the country know too well that several Western social networks and other sites are not available and that everything is controlled by the so-called Great Chinese Firewall.

The credit rating
There is nothing new up to this point. The news concerns, as the Financial Times spotted, the new credit rating system (the assessment of the creditworthiness) which is generally ascribed to companies but, in this context, to individual citizens. The government is determined to increase loans to hundreds of millions citizens through the financial system. To do so, Beijing wants to be sure that the people are worthy of such credit, so the loan societies could rely on unconventional indicators such as internet search chronology or purchases made over the phone to help them understand who deserves a loan.

Private companies admit they can access the data relating to the internet users in China thanks to the licenses issued last year by the People’s Bank of China (the central Chinese bank) with the purpose to develop an experimental rating system. Overall, eight licenses were issued to the largest organizations in the country like Tencent, Alibaba and Ping An Insurance, one of the most important insurance company in China. These “credit rating” assigned to people give access to a wider range of activities, which are not exclusively aimed at obtaining loans.

From the issue of privacy to new risks
Here are some examples: skip the queue at the airport, obtain a quick visa approval or even a preferential treatment to buy a pet. What explained above is enough to illustrate a serious violation of privacy. However, the wider plan of the Chinese government is to establish the honesty and trustworthiness of its citizens by 2020. Some fear that this situation may bring China back to the levels of personal surveillance of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, when the local authorities were kept informed about all daily activities.

Now, due to the decentralization process and the increased mobility of the Chinese population, such a tight social control would be impossible. However, the big data collected by the biggest companies operating in the internet sector could become a valid alternative. After all, all experts of Chinese economy agree that the major menace for the Chinese economy would be an outburst of social discontent. Big data could help Beijing to get a glimpse of the situation and act in order to keep an effective social control.

(translation by Cecilia Braghin)


Mariangela Pira

Mariangela Pira Giornalista professionista, responsabile del Desk China di Class Editori. Scrive per Milano Finanza e da Class Cnbc cura le finestre sulle borse per Skytg24. Per il Ministero degli Affari Esteri ha curato Esteri News, notiziario della diplomazia italiana, progetto per cui ha viaggiato in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libano, Israele, Palestina e negli altri paesi dove è presente la Cooperazione italiana. Ha iniziato la sua carriera all’Ansa di New York. Ha scritto per Hoepli La nuova rivoluzione cinese.