The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter -


There are 350 mil­lion peo­ple—more than the pop­u­la­tion of the Us—cur­rently tak­ing a stand against cli­mate change in China. But these ac­tivists are not ac­tu­ally tak­ing to the streets, nor even phys­i­cally plant­ing trees. In­stead, their new­found so­cial em­pow­er­ment is con­tained to a glow­ing screen open to the Ali­pay app, one of China’s two most pop­u­lar forms of elec­tronic pay­ment.

Ali­pay’s foray into so­cial en­gage­ment be­gan with the re­lease of the Ant For­est mo­bile game last year. Play­ers are awarded green en­ergy bub­bles based on their real-life ac­tions to re­duce their car­bon foot­prints, as de­ter­mined by the China Beijing En­vi­ron­men­tal Ex­change. These bub­bles can be shared or stolen from other users and used to wa­ter a vir­tual tree; once a tree ma­tures, the points ac­cu­mu­lated can be re­deemed to plant an ac­tual tree in a real de­for­ested area.

Ali­pay’s goals fit with the gov­ern­ment’s own plans to de­feat de­for­esta­tion, which in­cluded a “to­tal ban” on the do­mes­tic log­ging in­dus­try in 2017. The “Great Green Wall” of China, a 30-year mis­sion to plant 66 bil­lion trees to com­bat the en­croach­ing desert that al­ready cov­ers a quar­ter of China’s land­mass, has al­ready seen some suc­cess: He­bei prov­ince’s Sai­hanba Plateau, once a dusty waste­land, is now the world’s largest man­made for­est.

So far, over 56 mil­lion “Ant trees” have been planted by play­ers across the coun­try, prompt­ing For­tune mag­a­zine to list Ali­pay’s par­ent com­pany, Ant Fi­nan­cial, sixth in its 2017 “Change the World” list. The game’s im­age

and pop­u­lar­ity have been bol­stered by in­no­va­tive fea­tures: When some skep­tics ques­tioned whether Ali­pay was ac­tu­ally plant­ing trees, the com­pany pro­vided ac­cess to satel­lite tech­nol­ogy to mon­i­tor the growth the forests.

In a stroke of mar­ket­ing savvy, the game re­cently al­lowed groups to pool their bub­bles and ded­i­cate an “Ant tree” in honor of an an­ces­tor, fam­ily, part­ner, com­pany, or even grad­u­at­ing class. This is how Ms. Xiong, a 24-year-old in­sur­ance bro­ker in Chengdu, be­gan us­ing the game as a part of her daily rou­tine.

“My mother wants to plant a tree in the Ant For­est and name it af­ter my grand­fa­ther,” Xiong told TWOC. “She got me, as well as all of my aunts and cousins, us­ing the app ev­ery day.” Xiong en­joyed steal­ing bub­bles from her aunts, which of­ten prompted them to call her up and scold her. But she par­tic­u­larly liked that the friv­o­lous fun was able to trans­late into some­thing mean­ing­ful—mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in China’s en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, as well as hon­or­ing her grand­fa­ther’s le­gacy.

Le Shen, se­nior pub­lic re­la­tions ad­viser for Ant Fi­nan­cial, is proud that he has al­ready planted two trees, one for each year he has played the game. “In 2015, the smog in Beijing was ter­ri­ble and peo­ple were feel­ing the pinch of a de­graded en­vi­ron­ment,” Le, one of the very first users of Ant For­est, told TWOC. This prompted three Ant em­ploy­ees to start brain­storm­ing so­lu­tions out­side nor­mal work­ing hours.

No one an­tic­i­pated the suc­cess of the pro­ject when it first started, Le laughed, re­mem­ber­ing that there weren’t even des­ig­nated servers or band­width for the ini­tial Ant For­est, lead­ing to sev­eral mishaps early on.

The early suc­cess of Ant For­est can be at­trib­uted to wide­spread anx­i­eties over pol­lu­tion, as well as the rapid ubiq­uity of smart phones, broad­band, and elec­tronic pay­ment schemes that al­low Ali­pay to easily keep track of car­bon-off set­ting ac­tiv­i­ties: Users can boost up on green en­ergy bub­bles by walk­ing or us­ing dock­less bikes, such as the Ali­pay-in­vested Ofo. Ad­di­tion­ally, shop­pers can re­duce car­bon emissions by mak­ing daily trans­ac­tions (house­hold util­i­ties, sub­way tick­ets, or gro­ceries) with their bank-ac­count linked app.

While re­duc­ing the num­ber of four­inch re­ceipts and ticket stubs might not seem world-chang­ing be­hav­ior, Le be­lieves that, through economies of scale, “just the small­est change of be­hav­ior can have a huge im­pact.”

It should come as no sur­prise that al­most all these green en­ergy ac­tiv­i­ties in­cen­tivize the use of Ali­pay’s pay­ment plat­form. In­deed, since the in­tro­duc­tion of Ant For­est, users are spend­ing sub­stan­tially more time on the app—giv­ing Ali­pay an edge over its so­cial me­dia-driven ri­val, Wechat Wal­let. How­ever, Ant Fi­nan­cial’s com­mer­cial in­ter­ests are ex­actly what make the pro­ject both sus­tain­able and rel­e­vant to the fu­ture of hu­mankind, says Si­mon Zadek, co-direc­tor of the United Nations En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram’s (UNEP) In­quiry into the De­sign of a Sus­tain­able Fi­nan­cial Sys­tem.

Un­der Zadek’s lead­er­ship, the UNEP part­nered with Ant For­est just a month af­ter its re­lease, not­ing that, “His­tor­i­cally, the United Nations’ en­gage­ment has been with gov­ern­ments… in the 21st cen­tury, we have re­al­ized that this gov­ern­ment fo­cus has its lim­its and to bring about change, we must har­vest other mech­a­nisms of en­gage­ment, es­pe­cially in­side the mar­ket with the dig­i­tal world.”

Ali­pay’s 520 mil­lion users il­lus­trate the grow­ing power of Chi­nese com­pa­nies. Zadek re­cently founded the “Sus­tain­able Dig­i­tal Fi­nance Al­liance” with Ant Fi­nan­cial, the first global pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship with a pri­vate Chi­nese com­pany. He hopes the plat­form will ad­dress world­wide so­cial wel­fare, es­pe­cially in Ant Fi­nan­cial’s over­seas in­vest­ments such as In­dia’s PAYTM on­line pay­ment plat­form.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies like Ali­pay have been the im­pe­tus of China’s re­cent eco­nomic growth, en­grain­ing them­selves in peo­ple’s daily life by tap­ping into their needs and mo­ti­va­tions. One rea­son for Ant For­est’s suc­cess, Zadek hy­poth­e­sizes to TWOC, was that it met a need in so­ci­ety, giv­ing young peo­ple the chance to make a so­cial dif­fer­ence out­side of a closed po­lit­i­cal sphere. (The num­bers back him up—an es­ti­mated 65 per­cent of Ant For­est users are un­der 28). It is yet to be seen, how­ever, how the gov­ern­ment will en­gage with the grow­ing fi­nan­cial and so­cial power of these non state-owned com­pa­nies.

Asked about fu­ture chal­lenges of Ant For­est, Le ducked concerns about in­creased gov­ern­ment over­sight, and in­stead half-way joked: “Quite hon­estly, we are soon go­ing to run out of places to plant trees.”

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