China’s social security system turns to WeChat for electronic ID

Government trials in 26 cities will have Tencent’s WeChat replace traditional state-issued social security cards with digital version tied to users’ accounts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 9:25pm

WeChat, the popular mobile messaging, social media and payments platform run by Tencent Holdings, is poised to become further entrenched in everyday life in China under a new programme that adapts it as a user’s electronic social security card.

China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, backed by Hong Kong-listed Tencent, has started to roll out the project in 26 cities, including the southern coastal city of Shenzhen and Xi’an in the country’s northwest, according to a report on Friday by the state-run People’s Daily.

The WeChat-based electronic social security cards will enable users to provide their identification, status, payment records and other relevant information to official online inquiries about benefits and insurance coverage.

China’s social security system represents the most important public sector scheme for workers as it covers five insurance categories: pension, medical, unemployment, maternity and work-related injury.

Using WeChat as an electronic repository for all social security data in China represents another example of how the country’s hi-tech giants are gaining wider access to people’s private information through various digital services.

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Chan Ka-keung, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said in a recent industry forum, that consumers on the mainland have enthusiastically embraced new technology and have had no issues about sharing relevant data with trusted service providers, such as those in online search, e-commerce and social media.

That has enabled Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent – the Chinese triumvirate collectively known under the acronym BAT – to make use of all the data that each one gathers to improve their services and pursue other innovative endeavours, such as artificial intelligence. New York-listed Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

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The new social security card programme also marks the latest public-sector initiative in which WeChat, known as Weixin on the mainland, is being turned into a vital universal application by the government, despite the recent controversy over Tencent storing the chat logs of those who use the service.

The government of Guangzhou, capital of the southern coastal province of Guangdong, last month initiated a programme that creates a virtual identification card, which serves the same purpose as the traditional state-issued ID cards, through the WeChat accounts of registered users in the city’s Nansha district.

WeChat poised to become China’s official electronic ID system

Trials of the electronic ID project, which was co-developed by the research institute of the Ministry of Public Security and Tencent’s WeChat team, will be implemented across Guangdong and the entire country from this month.

Those verified for electronic ID cards will be able to use their WeChat ID to register in hotels and apply for government services without need to bring their physical ID cards.

Tencent, which confirmed the new electronic social security card programme, estimated that WeChat had 980 million monthly active users in the quarter ended September 30.

China’s social security system, which falls under the ambit of the Social Insurance Law, has an estimated 972 million card holders at present. It also covers the country’s mandatory housing fund.

With a broader adoption in future, WeChat-based electronic social security cards are expected to include a payment function. That means users will be able to settle their medical bills with their smartphone by scanning the WeChat Quick Response codes at the payment terminals in hospitals.