The Vice headline is lurid. Just a few days ago, on November 28, it screams at us: Millennials in China Are Using Nudes to Secure Loans. The article is breathless and couched in very current terms:

According to the latest research … some fintech companies [in China] are letting people pay for small daily purchases like burgers or biscuits on a long-term, monthly instalment basis.

In a country where cost of living is high and the chances of getting a credit card are relatively low, this new form of e-commerce has opened up a world of possibilities for a whole lot of Chinese millennials. Because it’s 2018, though, there’s also a dark side to the system. Sure, you can get a 475 gram box of Oreos and pay it back in monthly instalments of 41 cents over three years, or go jetski-shopping with peanuts to your name. But first you might have to send some nudes.

A number of dodgy lenders have realised that young shoppers are desperate for loans, and are demanding that customers hand over naked selfies as collateral.

All wording is present-tense, and no hint of scepticism about sourcing is voiced. There are links you can follow, though. And so implausible do I find this traveler’s tale — how is a nude photo useful as collateral? — that I decided to go looking at the sourcing.

It turns out that Vice was just clickbait-remilling (which is to say, ripping off) this more detailed Australian news story, which offers much more clarity about what’s going on — supposedly a sort of extortion-collection ring — and its Chinese sourcing:

In 2016, 10 gigabits of naked selfies of 161 young female students holding their photo IDs were leaked online by illegal microloan providers who had asked for the pictures as collateral for the loans.

Most of the victims were young female college students – aged between 19 and 23 years old – from China’s under-developed regions, according to a November 2016 report published by state media outlet China Youth Daily.

The victims told the Daily they were usually approached by the dodgy lenders on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat or QQ – a replica of ICQ – and that the interest rates and conditions were poorly explained to the chat groups with hundreds of members.

According to the report, the college students usually borrowed between $1,000 to $2,000 with interest rates up to 30 per cent, and lenders threatened to leak the naked photos to their family and friends when they failed to repay the loan on time.

Other young women were given the option to work in the sex industry to pay off their debt.

China’s Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission cited one case where Bing Chen, a resident in China’s eastern Nanjing city, received a nude photo of his daughter, Xue Chen, via a text message from an illegal lender.

Xue Chen reportedly sent several nude pictures of herself to receive a 4,000 yuan loan ($800), which jumped to 100,000 yuan ($20,000) in just six months, according to the Commission.

During that period, Xue Chen was pressured to send more nude pictures and videos of herself in order to extend the due date of her repayment.

Despite the Commission’s efforts to crack down in December 2016 on what are widely-know as “naked loan services”, recent local media reports say the notorious practice is still rife on some Chinese social media platforms.

However, Ms Chen of Euromonitor, said the situation has improved since late 2017 when China’s financial regulators enforced new rules forbidding unlicensed organisations and individuals from conducting a lending business.

Lenders were also prohibited from encouraging over-borrowing, abusive debt collection, and stealing customers’ private information, according to the state-owned Xinhua news agency.

So what did I learn when I dug into this traveler’s tale, as filtered through the Vice clickbait mill? Vice had a couple of lurid mosaic-blur nudie mugshots as their story graphic; those turned out to be sourced via the Australian story from the 2016 naked-selfies leak:

naked selfies

Nothing but stubborn skepticism (those would be easy to fake) and lack of trust in Chinese state news outlets makes me question that those photos are a real thing. (Why did 161 sets of still photos add to to 10 gigabits of data? But even so.) Assume that there really was a microlending ring using shame as collateral operating a couple of years ago in rural China. I’m not sure that 161 customers in a nation of 1.3 billion people makes a “rampant” problem as Vice called it, but move past that. The Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission managed to cite a grand total of one case where a family member got sent an embarrassing photo. The state news organization who was crusading against these so-called “naked lenders” baldly claimed “other young women were given the option to work in the sex industry to pay off their debt” without offering any specifics whatsoever — a classic case of layering baseless sex-trafficking panic onto whatever crusade you are waging at the moment.

What I make of all this is that in 2016, the Chinese government diagnosed a serious case of chump-change loansharks operating over social media. Because these microlenders were, essentially, small-time gangsters, they were using any leverage they could think of to secure their loans. Then somebody got nabbed with a thumb drive with some naked selfies on it. And that got leaked as part of the government’s propaganda case against these social media loansharks, which itself (the propaganda case) was part of a broader regulatory crackdown (because that’s how things are done in China).

Thus, it’s old news, it’s not from any inherently trustworthy source, and the only actual evidence (the heavily doctored photos) was released as part of a state propaganda campaign and is part of a data dump that never claimed to contain more than 161 individuals.

In all this there’s absolutely nothing to support Vice’s breathless present-tense clickbait headline. But I guess you don’t get the clicks for Chinese Authorities Broke Up Tiny Micro Loanshark Ring Two Years Ago For Extorting Repayment With Naked Selfies.

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