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Fitbit Sense review: A half-baked smartwatch for the wellness warrior



Beautiful design • Comfortable • Features EDA sensor for stress mangement • On device music storage • Built-in GPS
Unpredictable heart rate monitor • ECG sensor not available yet • Middling battery life • Expensive
With fitness and stress management tracking, the Fitbit Sense is aiming to be the all-in-one smartwatch. But with many of its marquee features coming at a later date, it mostly just feels half-baked.

⚡ Mashable Score

It’s taken almost four years, but it feels like Fitbit has finally found its footing in the world of smartwatches and the Fitbit Sense is proof — sort of. 

At this point, it’s no secret that Fitbit is extremely capable of manufacturing accurate, easy-to-use, sleek, and affordable fitness trackers. But when it comes to smartwatches, it’s safe to say the journey hasn’t been as smooth. 

Between 2016 and 2017, Fitbit released two devices that straddled the line between smartwatch and fitness tracker: the Blaze and Ionic. While both packed every sensor necessary to track your daily fitness needs, each one was just as clunky and unattractive as the one before it. These just weren’t wrist-worn accessories anyone really wanted to wear on a daily basis.

And then came the Fitbit Versa in 2018, which the company confidently touted as a full-fledged smartwatch to compete with the likes of Google’s Wear OS and Apple Watch. This time around, Fitbit prioritized design, resulting in a stunning device that lacked any standout features to separate it from the rest of the company’s fitness trackers.

Now, with the new Sense, Fitbit’s tapping into something that smartwatch brands have yet to even touch with a ten-foot pole: tracking the mind in addition to the body. Currently on pre-order, the $330 smartwatch packs an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor under the hood to measure changes in skin temperature. With this device, it’s clear Fitbit is signaling to the market that mental health and stress management are just as critical to track as fitness.

A premium, but subtle design 

At over $300, the Fitbit Sense is the company’s most expensive smartwatch to date and it’s easy to tell from the packaging alone. I’ve unboxed many Fitbit fitness trackers and smartwatches throughout my career, but nothing has felt quite like opening the double-door box that houses the Sense. It’s a beautiful-looking watch that’s super lightweight, comfortable to wear throughout the day, and pairs well with any outfit. 

The gold aluminum watch case has a large, 1.58-inch AMOLED display with 336 x 336 pixel resolution. The Sense’s display, bordered by thick bezels all around, is super responsive and smooth.  It’s also bright enough to easily view content and metrics even while in direct sunlight. It also comes with an always-on display feature, so you can glance at it to view the time or metrics without having to flick your wrist to wake it.

I can get used to not having any physical buttons on future Fitbit smartwatches.

I can get used to not having any physical buttons on future Fitbit smartwatches.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Navigating the display is easy to get the hang of, too. Swipe down to view notifications; swipe up to access all of your health metrics and stats; swipe to the left for access to apps (i.e., exercise, weather, Fitbit Pay, Spotify, and more); and swipe right to toggle on features like Do Not Disturb, Always-on display, Sleep Mode, and more.

The Sense, which is free of any physical buttons, features a sensor button with haptic feedback that’s indented on the left side of the case. A single press wakes the screen; a double press gives you access to four of your favorite pre-selected apps; and a long press brings you to one specific app. It’s just as easy as using a physical button and also gives the Sense a more streamlined look. 

On the bottom of the Sense, you’ll find a variety of sensors including Fitbit’s new heart rate monitor, electrical sensors for EDA scans, and a skin temperature sensor. Additionally, the smartwatch also packs an altimeter, gyroscope, 3-axis accelerometer, built-in GPS, and an SPO2 sensor.

The right side of the Sense’s case packs a speaker while the opposite side includes a microphone —  both of which are used for either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. But there are a few things to note about this voice assistant feature. 

The Fitbit Sense packs a ton of different sensors.

The Fitbit Sense packs a ton of different sensors.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable 

For starters, until Fitbit adds Google Assistant functionality later this year, you’re limited to using Alexa for now. Additionally, audible assistant replies also won’t available until later in 2020, so the speaker is useless at the moment. As of right now, you’re forced to open the Alexa app on the display, ask the question out loud, and then wait for the results to appear on the screen. It’s not awful, but seeing as how I’m used to hearing Alexa on my Amazon Echo or even Siri on my iPhone provide me with verbal results, it takes a bit of readjustment.

As for accessories, the Sense does have interchangeable straps. Out of the box, it comes with a classic silicone wristband. But you can purchase additional bands like the breathable sport band or woven band, which range anywhere from $29.95 to $49.95.

Accurate fitness tracking, unpredictable heart rate monitor

Compared to other Fitbit smartwatches and trackers, the Sense doesn’t offer anything new in terms of exercise tracking features. On a daily basis, it tracks steps, distance, calories burned, heart rate, and floors climbed. Using the exercise app, you can track a variety of different workouts like running, biking, walking, hiking, yoga, and more.

The Sense also includes the fairly new Active Zone minutes feature, which was first introduced with the Charge 4 back in April. Essentially, it measures your heart rate zones (i.e., fat burn, cardio, and peak) to give you an extra push throughout your workout. So, when you’re in fat burn zone, you’ll get one credit towards your total Active Zone minutes while the more intense zones will get you two credits.

I didn't have the best luck with the heart-rate monitor on the Sense.

I didn’t have the best luck with the heart-rate monitor on the Sense.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

To do this, the Sense uses Fitbit’s new PurePulse 2.0 heart rate monitor, which the company says has an improved algorithm to offer its “most advanced heart rate technology yet.” However, I didn’t have the best experience with it during my workouts. 

To test it out, I wore the Sense, Apple Watch Series 6, and Polar H10 heart rate monitor, and compared my stats. Throughout three separate runs, I found my average heart rate on the Sense was always off by about 10 to 20 beats per minute (BPM). Now, contrast that with the measurements from my Apple Watch and Polar strap — both of which were only about one to two BPM off from one another.

Throughout my runs, I noticed the Sense struggled to keep up with change in pace in real-time. For example, when I was at a light jog, the BPM on the Sense matched the rest of the devices. But when I’d ramp up my speed and increase my heart-rate, it would take a while for it catch up with both the Apple Watch and the Polar H10. 

I also tested it during a quick, 15-minute kickboxing session and ran into the same issue. But this time, the average BPM was off by about 20 BPM. 

While this might not be a big deal for some people, it’s important for those who base their training around heart rate zones. Seeing as how they rely on the exact zone their body is in to decide whether or not to slow down or speed up, it’s crucial for proper training. 

I didn’t have this issue throughout the day, though. Resting heart rate calculations were spot on with  results I typically receive from other trackers. However, it clearly tends to struggle with more intense activity when there’s various changes in heart rate throughout the workout. 

With built-in GPS, at least distance tracking was accurate.

With built-in GPS, at least distance tracking was accurate.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

I reached out to Fitbit to look into the heart rate monitor issue and will update this review when I receive a response. 

With built-in GPS, distance tracking was almost on par with the Apple Watch’s results. Having that built-in sensor also means you don’t have to take your phone with you on your runs in order to log your mileage. You can also pair Bluetooth headphones to the device and access playlists from music apps like Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.

Managing stress with the Sense is going to take some work

Using the Sense, you can track how stressed out you are throughout the day or night. Simply open the EDA Scan app on the device, place your palm over the metal frames around the display, and breathe for two minutes while it takes a body scan. When it’s done, you’ll feel the Sense vibrate and you’ll be provided with a summary of your session. Basically, it works like this: The higher the number of responses it records in one session (based on your change in temperature), the more stressed you are.

To take an EDA Scan, all you have to do is place your palm over the display.

To take an EDA Scan, all you have to do is place your palm over the display.

Image: brenda stolyar / fitbit

You’ll then be asked to log how you’re feeling (i.e., very calm, calm, neutral, stressed) so that the Fitbit app can connect a specific mood to your score. At the moment, logging your mood simply allows you to make more sense of your overall score when reflecting back. But in the future, that data might also make it easier for your Fitbit to predict stress levels based on your EDA Scan. 

With that EDA Scan, you’ll also receive a Stress management Score (based on numbers 1-100) that’s calculated using your EDA score, heart rate, sleep quality, and activity levels. The higher the score, the less stressed out you are. 

While I can’t measure the accuracy of these EDA scans, I did rely on the feature whenever I was feeling a lot of anxiety coming on. And I can confirm that, for most sessions, it managed to pick up a higher amount of responses the more stressed out I was. And, given that the week prior was absolute madness work-wise, I’d say my lower score of 49 last Thursday and 62 today are very accurate indicators of how I’m feeling on the inside.

As of right now though, I can’t say the score impacts my daily life very much when it comes to how I view my metrics or what workouts I’m going to do. And, that’s particularly because getting the most out of the EDA Scans and your Stress Management Score is going to take some work and dedication. 

Taking the time to breathe for two minutes throughout your day is mainly a push towards guiding people into the habit of meditating. When you’re done with your EDA Scan, the bottom of the display suggests participating in a mindfulness session ranging anywhere from one minute to an hour. 

Using the Fitbit app, you can see a history of your Stress Management Score.

Using the Fitbit app, you can see a history of your Stress Management Score.

Image: screenshot / fitbit

When you tap on a specific score, you can log additional reflections throughout the day.

When you tap on a specific score, you can log additional reflections throughout the day.

Image: screenshot / fitbit

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — if it’s not already incorporated into your routine. I’ve been incorporating meditation into my fitness routines since the start of the pandemic, so the EDA feature was actually crucial for days when I felt anxiety attacks coming on. I would simply open the app, breathe for two minutes, and log my score. 

It’s worth noting that relying on meditation whenever I start to feel panicky has taken me over six months of practice — and I’m still working on it. While you can set notifications for reminders to take a moment to breathe, the actual act of stopping what it is you’re doing to take a reading each time might take practice for some.

But given the positive benefits that mindfulness and meditation can provide for some, it’s certainly a nice feature to have, especially if it also helps paint a picture of your overall stress. Of course, it’s going to take some time to evolve before we can see it provide more useful suggestions and metrics. 

A smartwatch that’s also an ideal sleep companion

Though the heart-rate monitor had a tendency to struggle with workouts, it did manage to track sleep accurately. Based on my BPM, it was able to correctly pinpoint when I fell asleep and when I woke up — a problem a lot of smartwatches and trackers tend to misidentify. It also provided me with a Sleep Score each morning based on metrics like duration of sleep and sleep stages (i.e., REM, deep, and light sleep). 

The Sense offers a watch face that lets you easily check your blood oxygen level from the night prior.

The Sense offers a watch face that lets you easily check your blood oxygen level from the night prior.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

The Sense also tracks your temperature throughout the night. It doesn’t provide you with your exact temperature, but it does keep an eye on whether you’re above or below your baseline. It takes up to three days of wearing the device to bed for it to determine your standard body temperature, and from there it calculates whether you’re in range. 

While it’s especially useful during a pandemic where a high fever is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, these numbers can also help you figure out whether you’re coming down with any illness. And, for women, specifically, it can help indicate whether or not a new menstrual cycle is starting.

Of course, it’s tough to measure accuracy when it comes to this feature, but I can confirm that it registered when I was feeling warmer than usual one night. I’d gone to bed wearing both a T-shirt and a sweatshirt, and took off the latter because it was way too hot in my room. The next morning, the Sense recorded that I was .3 degrees Fahrenheit above my baseline. The increase in temperature also makes since since my next menstrual cycle is supposed to start in about three days.

The last metric the Sense tracks throughout the night is your blood oxygen levels using the SPO2 sensor. Unlike the Apple Watch Series 6, which allows users to measure their levels manually, the Sense measures it throughout the night instead. 

Fitbit says the reason it doesn’t offer the ability to measure your levels on demand is because nighttime”is when your body is most likely to show variations from your baseline oxygen saturation levels.”

You can see your history of temperature readings on the Fitbit app.

You can see your history of temperature readings on the Fitbit app.

Image: screenshot / fitbit

After three days, it was able to compare my metrics each night to baseline reading.

After three days, it was able to compare my metrics each night to baseline reading.

Image: screenshot / fitbit

I also used the SPO2 watch face that displayed my levels after each night of sleep. That way, all I had to do was sync my watch to the Fitbit app each morning and the reading automatically appeared.

Similar to the new Apple Watch Series 6, the Sense also packs an ECG sensor, however, that feature won’t be available until October since Fitbit only recently received FDA clearance this month. To take a reading when it’s enabled, you’ll need to place your fingers on the corners of the watch for 30 seconds to determine if you show any signs of atrial fibrillation.

Iffy battery life, depending on how you use it

Though Fitbit is very much known for its impressive days-long battery life, the Sense is a tad disappointing on that front. It’s understandable, however, seeing as how the Sense is technically tracking double the amount of information as compared to Fitbit’s other smartwatches — and that’s with the addition of EDA scans.

The Fitbit Sense is supposed to last up to six days, but I could only squeeze about three to four days out of it on a single charge. 

When it first arrived last Tuesday, it lasted me up until Friday night after using it for a couple of quick workouts, sleep tracking, and taking a few body scans throughout the day. That was also with the always-on display and all notifications enabled. 

After charging it again on Friday, I was at 14 percent by Monday afternoon, but that was after making some tweaks. Since I’d used it for hour-long workouts throughout the weekend, along with more EDA scans to track stress, and sleep tracking, I saw it deplete at a much faster rate than earlier in the week. So, I turned off the always-on display and limited my notifications to strictly Gmail, texts, and calls. 

If I hadn’t changed the Settings as much, I know the Sense would definitely not have been able to last three days. But in addition to the Versa 3, it’s the first of Fitbit’s smartwatches to come with fast charging capabilities. So, you can charge it up to 80 percent in 40 minutes. Thankfully, if you’re in a rush and need to use it for a workout, you’ll get up to one day of battery life in only 12 minutes.

Regardless, it would’ve been nice if Fitbit packed a bigger battery into this one knowing exactly how many sensors and features are working simultaneously around the clock. 

You might want to wait to drop money on this one

The Sense is a good first start, though

The Sense is a good first start, though

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

The Fitbit Sense certainly packs plenty of features that justify its over $300-plus price tag. But unlike the company’s other devices, it’s not for the ultimate fitness buff who only wants to focus on exercise metrics. Instead, it’s a well-rounded smartwatch that fills the gap for those who need a smartwatch that focuses on wellness as much as it does fitness. 

But there are minor annoyances that hinder it from claiming the title of the ultimate smartwatch: the unpredictable heart rate monitor, the mediocre battery life, and the somewhat useless stress management score. Plus, with a list of features like ECG readings, audible replies, and Google Assistant capabilities all slated to come later in 2020, the Sense just feels half-baked at launch.

If you’re the looking for a smartwatch in the Fitbit ecosystem that’s more streamlined when it comes to fitness metrics, then you’re better off sticking with the Versa lineup. Otherwise, the Charge 4 is also an excellent choice. 

The Fitbit Sense, on the other hand, is enjoyable to use but tough to recommend for everyone. With its emphasis on mindfulness when tracking stress, the Sense is more ideal for those who are in the market for a device that will help fuel their meditation practice or integrate it into their fitness routines. 

But if you want the full experience, you’re better off waiting until Fitbit makes all the updates to the Sense as promised.


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



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.



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.



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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