Yi Tingyue has a lot going for her. She won a scholarship to China’s prestigious Sichuan University, where she graduated with a master’s in graphic design. She drives an Audi A4 and owns a penthouse apartment on the outskirts of provincial capital Chengdu. Vacations are spent touring Japan, Thailand and the U.S. Little wonder Yi is an 805.
That’s the score assigned to Yi by Sesame Credit, which is run by Jack Ma’s online-shopping empire Alibaba, placing the 22-year-old near the top of the scheme’s roughly 500 million–strong user base. Sesame determines a credit-score ranking—from 350 to a theoretical 950—dependent on “a thousand variables across five data sets,” according to the firm.
Unlike Western-style credit systems, Sesame takes in a broad range of behaviors both financial and social, all underwritten by an invisible web of Big Data. It’s the most prominent in a rising network of social-credit-score systems in China that are dramatically expanding the concept of creditworthiness—and raising fears internationally about Orwellian overreach by an autocratic regime.
In China, cash has long been king. As recently as 2011, only 1 in 3 Chinese people had a bank account. The nation’s rapid rise from collectivized penury to the world’s No. 2 economy meant it never had the chance to develop Western-style credit histories. That meant people could default on loans,