Caixin
Jun 07, 2018 08:29 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Project to Allow WeChat to Serve as ID in China’s Greater Bay Area

A Tencent employee demonstrates how the e-version of identities may be used in practice at the border between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Photo: VCG
A Tencent employee demonstrates how the e-version of identities may be used in practice at the border between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Photo: VCG

Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. is in talks with the authorities to make its WeChat app a digital alternative for paper identity documents for residents of Hong Kong, Macau and part of Guangdong province.

The e-version of identities will be encrypted and stored in WeChat as a QR code, and a user can verify their identity by scanning both their face and the QR code with a special machine, Tencent showcased the technology in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

The project is designed primarily for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area for certain procedures such as when residents cross the border between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. The project has not launched yet as Tencent is still negotiating with the authorities.

The move came as Shenzhen-based Tencent seeks to become more involved in the Greater Bay Area, comprising Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities, notably Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The central government is promoting the region to further boost the economy of southern China.

The region accounts for less than 1% of China’s territory and 4% of its population but generated 11.8% of China’s national gross domestic product in 2017. Tencent Chairman Pony Ma said in March that the company wants to help smooth the flow of talent within the region.

Chinese mainlanders need a special passport to go to Hong Kong and Macau, and vice versa. The nascent digital ID on WeChat can help combine several travel documents under one account, according to Tencent.

A Tencent employee who showcased the technology on Wednesday said that the digital ID will become operational as early as July for people to book cruise tickets from Shenzhen to Zhuhai, a procedure that requires an identity check.

Huang Tingting, who is in charge of the digital-ID project, said on Wednesday that the Hong Kong government plans to roll out digital identity cards in 2020, and will solicit bids on the project soon.

In addition to travel, Tencent wants to facilitate financial activities as well, allowing Chinese mainlanders and Hong Kong residents to open bank accounts, trade stocks and buy insurance packages in each other’s homelands. The plans, technically approachable, are far from happening because of regulatory obstacles, the Tencent employee said.

Huang said that the digital ID is not designed to replace the paper documents. Her colleague Meng Fanxu explained that the project aims to protect privacy. For example, when people check in at a hotel, they don’t need to show the receptionist their real ID cards, but just a QR code that only a machine can read, Meng said.

It is not the first time that Tencent has introduced a digital ID. It has started pilot programs in Guangzhou and Fuzhou, Fujian province, in which citizens are able to use a virtual ID for government services, such as registering a company with the local commerce authority in Guangzhou.

WeChat rival app Alipay, the digital payment tool invented by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., has also been doing similar things. In April, citizens in Hangzhou and Quzhou of Zhejiang province and Fuzhou were able to get a digital ID on Alipay, with which they can get government services, do hotel check-ins and buy coach tickets.

Contact reporter Coco Feng (renkefeng@caixin.com)

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