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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

WeBank started piloting facial recognition for KYC (“know your customer”—verifying that a customer is who they say they are) last year—we heard about it when we talked with Jared Shu, a partner with McKinsey, as part of our deep dive about the different ways banks pursue financial inclusion. At that point, the technology was mere possibility, with some question about whether the regulator would allow it. Now, it seems, facial recognition is indeed serving as a form of identity in China. With the help of technology, customers can quite literally authorize a transaction using their face.

Alipay, a mobile payment app launched by Alibaba in 2004 and used by 120 million people in China, is partnering with Face++ (pronounced “face plus plus”) to allow people to use their face as a credential to make payments. The technology is a natural extension of using a fingerprint to verify a person’s identity, and it is far more secure than just comparing a signature on the back of a credit card to a signature on a receipt.

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> Posted by Kimberly Lei Pang, Digital Learning Specialist, UNICEF

In the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the magical word “sesame” was used to open the seal of a cave where Ali Baba found hidden treasure. In China today, the same word is connected to another kind of magic, one that reveals hidden identities of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Sesame Credit (“芝麻信用” in Mandarin) is a product launched by Alibaba that pulls from transaction records on e-commerce platforms to understand a person or company’s creditworthiness. Such innovation in credit scoring is part of the “social credit system” that the Chinese government is building to make up for the longstanding shortage of credit data.

Access to credit, a major indicator of financial inclusion, has gained increasing attention from Chinese policymakers in recent years. For a country experiencing an economic slowdown and widening income gap between the rich and the poor, credit accessibility has the potential to spur growth and level the playing field for the poor. However, despite China’s efforts to improve financial access, a large portion of its population neither uses nor has access to credit. Data from the World Bank’s Global Findex study showed that Chinese people (aged 15+) have relatively high levels of formal bank account ownership (79 percent, 2014) but low levels of credit usage (14 percent, 2014). In fact, China’s formal credit use is the lowest among the five BRICS economies. Aside from the rigidity and costliness of financial institutions, a significant barrier to borrowing is the lack of reliable credit scoring in China. Established just 11 years ago, China’s credit bureau CCRC covers credit profiles for only a quarter of China’s 1.4 billion population and shares that information only with selected banks. Lenders thus often have no access to borrowers’ financial histories and tend to make rather arbitrary decisions on borrowers’ creditworthiness. As a result, many individuals and microenterprises find it difficult to get a loan, as steady employment and collateral assets are commonly required for formal credit.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Specialist, CFI

Does a speeding ticket help predict whether you will pay back a loan? While this might seem like a stretch, it may not be as farfetched as it sounds, at least in China.

China’s government is piloting a new ‘social credit’ scoring system that takes into account a diversity of financial and nonfinancial factors and behaviors. The financial ones are familiar – being delinquent on payments for insurance or social security. The nonfinancial ones are potentially troubling, and include, to name a few, traffic violations, jaywalking, dodging metro fares, violating the country’s family planning rules, criticizing the ruling party, and neglecting your elderly parents.

The social credit system may be used to affect financial opportunities, like securing loans, as well as non-financial ones, like job offers, your child’s admission to schools, faster treatment at government offices, access to luxury hotels, and being able to buy transit tickets.

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> Posted by Tim Tsang, Positive Planet China

A need for formal credit in China

(click to enlarge)

Between 2011 and 2014, 180 million adults (aged 15+) became new bank account holders in China. Yet in 2014, only 9.6 percent of Chinese adults, or less than 110 million, actually accessed credit from a financial institution, which includes credit unions, microfinance institutions, and cooperatives as well as banks. The incongruity across such statistics highlights both the progress made and the challenges remaining on China’s path to a more financially inclusive economy.

The need for reform is as important as ever with China’s growing credit industry. During its economic slowdown, China has looked to spur growth through consumer spending and should continue to see consumer lending steadily grow. The rigidity and costliness of China’s financial institutions, however, have hindered addressing consumers’ growing credit demand, leaving a discernable credit gap. Instead, in a big way consumers have resorted to informal and nontraditional sources of loans. This largely holds true for both urban and rural borrowers, with roughly a third of Chinese adults borrowing in 2014.

Among China’s informal lenders, family or friends are still the most common for financing individual loans, but “shadow banking” institutions, most notably P2P and online lending companies, have cropped up in recent years to try to capture this untapped market. As less regulated institutions, these shadow banks almost uniformly offer higher-risk, high-interest loans, rather than provide a sustainable and transparent alternative to banks.

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The government of China is launching a mandatory credit scoring system in 2020 and since the publishing of a piece on the system by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week, it’s become a topic of passionate discussion. It remains to be seen how the system will work, but in reading a released State Council planning document, it seems likely that credit scores will be determined by more than just financial behaviors. While the creation of a country-wide credit reporting system potentially presents big benefits to lenders and borrowers, it’s essential that such a system doesn’t unfairly discriminate or breach citizens’ privacy. Below are the opening excerpts from the ACLU post and from a Tech in Asia post, which weighs in on the ACLU’s points and offers additional food for thought.

“China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans”

> By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project

China is launching a comprehensive “credit score” system, and the more I learn about it, the more nightmarish it seems. China appears to be leveraging all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control. It is, as one commentator put it, “authoritarianism, gamified.” Read this piece for the full flavor—it will make your head spin. If that and the little other reporting I’ve seen is accurate, the basics are this:
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> Posted by Center Staff

Hot off the press! We published the third issue of the Financial Inclusion 2020 News Feed, our new weekly online magazine on the big news in financial inclusion. What’s been happening in the world of banking the unbanked?

Among its stories, the new issue of the FI2020 News Feed spotlights the following:

  • The State Bank of Pakistan ordered all commercial banks in the country to create a new account category, Asaan Account, which targets the base of the pyramid by simplifying account opening requirements
  • Mybank, a new online bank in China, was launched by Ant Financial, utilizing transaction records on Alibaba to extend credit to individuals and small businesses
  • In Tanzania, agent and mobile phone-based banking continues to grow steadily in both the volume and value of transactions

For more details on these and other stories, read the third issue here, and make sure to subscribe by entering your email address in the right-hand menu so you can be notified when the latest issue comes out.

Have you come across a story or initiative you think we should cover? Email your ideas to us at ezuehlke@accion.org.

> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Associate, CFI

In most countries, you don’t hear much buzz about business-to-business (B2B) eCommerce. In the United States, for example, our eCommerce goliaths of the moment are Amazon and eBay, which focus on the business-to-consumer (B2C) segment. But this isn’t the case in China, where the B2B eCommerce industry is ballooning and drawing the rest of the world in. It grew by 32 percent to US$ 3.76 billion in revenue in 2014, and in the coming years the revenue growth rate is expected to stay over 20 percent. China’s B2B break-out market leader is Alibaba, which brought in about US$1 billion in B2B eCommerce revenue in 2014, comprising roughly 34 percent of the country market. Alibaba has been busy with B2B this spring, partnering with alternative lending startups in the United Kingdom to facilitate B2B trade between the two countries, hosting a B2B eCommerce competition in Hong Kong to support Chinese SMEs, and, as of this coming Monday, launching a new cross-border service on its 1668.com platform to facilitate foreign imports for Chinese SMEs.  

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last week global leaders across industries gathered in the tiny mountain town of Davos, Switzerland for the 2015 World Economic Forum (WEF). (Though you probably already knew that, given the annual event’s ever-swelling stature and press.) The WEF fosters strategic dialogues in the hopes of developing ideas, insights, and partnerships around the most pressing issues and transformations reshaping our world. This year’s WEF included sessions from Jack Ma of Alibaba on the future of commerce, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on global responsibilities in a digital age, IMF Director Christine Lagarde on global monetary policy, former Israeli President Shimon Peres on political affairs affecting the region, and Bill Gates on sustainable future development. Of course we were following the topic of financial inclusion, and the action that got underway made it a week worth noting. Here’s a snapshot of some of the financial inclusion happenings at Davos.

In the “Inclusive Growth in a Digital Age” session held on Wednesday, a panel, which included MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, considered how our age of digitization can confront income and wealth inequality, support investments in education and work-based training, and address vulnerable employment. Among the points of discussion was mobile phone penetration leveraged for financial services access. A full video recording of the session is available, here.

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> Posted by Tyler Owens, CFI Staff

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The current era of financial services for the poor is marked by the growth of high-tech delivery mechanisms, innovative start-ups, new socially responsible investing models, and more traditional banks growing their portfolios of base-of-the-pyramid clients. Different players in increasingly crowded markets often collide in trying to win over more clients. Just one recent example is the newly public Alibaba, which has issued more than $16 billion in small loans over the last three years through its SME loan company AliFinance. The result of all this can lead one to question the role that traditional MFIs will play in the years and decades ahead. What will be their unique value proposition and how will they earn and maintain market share and the loyalty of their clients?

There is evidence that microfinance industry practitioners and stakeholders are not prioritizing questions of relevance and long-term customer retention. All too often, thinking strategically about the place of an MFI in a rapidly changing financial services landscape takes a back seat to the daily crush of competition and loan book performance. The 2014 Microfinance Banana Skins report—which is built on surveys of industry practitioners and insiders—concluded that the most urgent risks the industry faces are those of day-to-day business operations, such as credit control, competition, and management quality. The report went on to say that “longer term risks associated with the survival and evolution of the industry such as technological change, product development and funding are considered to be less urgent – and are less well defined.” It concluded that paying scant attention to long-term risks in the industry—at a crucial point in its development—may be a serious risk in itself.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Albeit a relative newcomer to microfinance, China’s market has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2012 the country had 6,000 microcredit providers, but only 25 percent had been in operation for more than three years. Today the number of providers is a few thousand higher, spanning nonprofit institutions, government programs, microcredit companies, commercial banks, rural credit cooperatives and banks, village and township banks, and P2P lenders. Even Alibaba, China’s internet giant, is involved. It has offered loans to over 230,000 micro-entrepreneurs through its AliFinance arm, launched in 2011.

Earlier this year Accion’s Training and Capacity-Building team conducted a comprehensive assessment to determine the training and knowledge-sharing needs of the microfinance providers sustainably serving the poor in China. The assessment was carried out in partnership with the China Microfinance Institution Association, the China Association of Microfinance, and the PBC School of Finance Tsinghua, with support from the MetLife Foundation. As part of the assessment, the team compiled a landscape of the country’s microfinance institutions. Offering a snapshot of the state of the market and the challenges that lie ahead, here are some of its findings.

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