Is China Ready To Take The Big Data Plunge?

Hold on.
Hold on.
Nie Riming*


BEIJING â€" China has been woefully behind its Western counterparts in the use and sharing of big data. A recent proposal by the government's State Council aims to make up lost ground, promoting the collectioin and sharing of data between government departments and a gradual opening up of public data resources to improve social governance, the economy, public services and innovation.

This would expand on efforts begun in 2008 for the government to provide access to more information, which has slowly become more intuitive and applicable for a variety of purposes. Many of China's main industries â€" electricity and telecommunications, for example â€" are largely controlled by the state, so their information is also in government hands.

As it stands, not only is the data that's available to the public very limited, but it's also not terribly useful either. Until very recently, for example, air quality index statistics were lacking, and data about traffic and demographics weren't made public. Though national air quality data is finally available, the historical data and current collection methods remain behind the current standards for research needs, which means the information ultimately does little to actually help governments tackle pollution.

The only law regulating government information disclosure was instituted in 2008, but it is aimed primarily at regulatory information. It has very rigid specifications about what kinds of disclosures are required, and there are so many exceptions involving confidentiality that the government can justify failing to release almost anything.

Poor form

On the technical front, the data that is released is often done so in an unsophisticated, text-based way instead of with a database interface. Even worse, the most crucial information about government operations â€" including the budget, personnel, state-owned enterprises and real-time monitoring data for sectors â€" remains unavailable.

The undisclosed data often involves concerns such as government approvals and public oversight, so the authorities are reluctant to make it public. Government departments are so-called "information silos," closed off from materials and statistics from other departments that could be helpful to them.

Information is power, and the government knows that. If transport experts were able to access all the information about traffic volume and car accidents, they'd be able to critique urban planning, new road construction projects, and commercial and residential zoning. The authorities obviously don't want that.

The state council's new proposal includes welcome new access to commercial data, but excludes the disclosure of financial information, apparently for fear that research based on such data can easily lead to public criticism of the government’s spending policy.

Since the government's money comes from the taxpayers, data should be made open to the people. But no less important is the need for governmental agencies to break down those silos and share each other's data; only then can experts conduct research based on the most thorough information available, and help pave the way for better government policy, smarter urban planning, and the most efficient investment of public resources.

*Nie Riming is a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law.    

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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