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As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

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The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.

But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.

The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.

Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.

The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.

But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.

While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.

Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.

Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.

The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.

Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records.

Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.

And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.

Mr. Prior said in an email that he worked in public affairs and pitched stories to “a variety of media outlets.” Because the network “actually covers local issues,” he added, “I often pitch stories that have local angles to them.” He declined to answer questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.

The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.

ImageBrian Timpone, a former TV reporter in Illinois, added about 900 websites to his news network in just five months last year. 
Credit…Matthew Gilson

Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.

Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.

“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”

Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.

A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.

“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.

About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.

When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and started a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.

The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

Timpone network websites

Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.

By Ella Koeze·Websites that look like local news are placed on the map by county. Websites that look like state and intra-state regional news are placed by state. Dots are sized by the number of sites related to each county or state.·Data via Global Disinformation Index and Ben Decker. Sites were discovered using reverse lookups of Google Analytics and Google Adsense.

“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.

Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.

Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.

He has also said publicly, and in a filing with the Federal Election Commission, that he runs some of the sites.

But the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.

Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites.

In August, two local newspapers, a combined 142 years old, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Lake Isabella, Calif, announced to their readers that they had been purchased by Metric Media LLC.

Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.

“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.

The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.

Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.

“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July.

Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.

“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”

Credit…Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.

The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.

Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”

John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”

Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”

He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.

“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”

Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.

Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.

Credit…Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.

Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”

Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.

In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.

“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.

The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.

“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.

Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.

Ashford received around $70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.

In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.

But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”

Credit…Milken Institute, via Youtube

A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.

What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.

His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”

After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.

Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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