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The Nitty Gritty of China’s Social Credit System

You’ve heard that China is creating a social credit system. This is the system where the Chinese government ranks people based on whether they conform to dictated social norms.

In the video, "The" Social Credit System: Why It's Both Better and Worse Than We can ImagineAntonio Hmaidi a PhD candidate in East Asian Economics, discusses the impact of the Chinese social credit system and its potential influence on China. Unlike many overviews we find on the web, Hmaidi provides detailed background and analysis. She points out that over 70 pilot programs are currently running, each being run with slight differences in order to find the best way to implement a national program. She considers a few specific pilot programs and identifies possible effects such applications could have on Chinese society.

I've wanted to write on this topic for a while but instead will have to settle for making a few comments and offering links for those who want to dig deeper. Here are my main observations: 

Perceptions of the Social Credit System

In part one of Hmaidi’s talk, she shows how the social credit system is perceived in China and the West. Many Chinese do not even know this system exists (or is coming into existence). The government presents the system as a way of fostering trust between people. As Hmaidi states, many outsiders do not realize thattrust is a rare commodity" in China[1]. In contrast, she quotes a Western scholar who says, “What China is doing is selectively breeding its population to select against the train of critical, independent thinking.”

The System’s Design

In the second part of her talk, Hmaidi examines various public predecessors to the forthcoming Chinese social credit system. The key idea that underlies each of these pilot programs is this: China wants to link people with their conduct. In response to this, Hmaidi explains, “Chinese citizens are divided into trustworthy individuals and trust-breakers.” 

So, the idea goes, by linking people closer to a uniting social system, people are held accountable and thus become more trustworthy. Hmaidi dives deep into the system’s potential rewards and punishments received by individuals. In effect, China’s social credit system is a way of commodifying “face.” The entire project works through public shaming.

A Social Credit System with American Characteristics?

One article poses a provocative question, “Chinese-Style Social Credits System a Harbinger of US's Future?” The writer states:

That is the fundamental reason both the Chinese and Western governments are resorting to moral micromanagement of the population: having undermined and rejected the religious foundations of virtue, governments replace it with a secular system of rewards and punishments to “nudge” the populace into virtue, with the stronger threats of PC police and bands of thugs to be used on particularly stubborn individuals and groups. Government is our new conscience because God is too great a threat to the established secular order.

In China, the system is far more organized than in the United States and is directed toward supporting traditional virtues. In the United States, the process is a combination of threats and stealth directed toward undermining conventional virtues in order to increase the spread of dependency and thus greater voter support for big government.

Are we not already moving into an Americanized version of a social credit system? If you can’t imagine it, recall the Black Mirror episode concerning social media. For those of you who’ve missed it, the first video below shows what a social media credit system might look like.

Black Mirror: “The future of social media. Rating everyone in your daily interactions” (2:55)

And here is what happens when the system goes haywire. 

Black Mirror: S03E01 Airport Scene (2:52) (Note: Some coarse language used)

Other Articles, Sites, and Videos

Here is a list of links with other articles, sites, and videos for those interested in reading more.

Articles and Sites

The West may be wrong about China’s social credit system (Washington Post)

China's Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn't Real (Foreign Policy)

Understanding China's Social Credit System and What it Means for Consumers (Branding in Asia)

When Is 'Social Credit' Orwellian? (Forbes)

Legal Documents Related to the Social Credit System (China Translate Law)

有关社会信用体系的法律文件 (China Translate Law)

Social Credit Articles (China Translate Law)


Exposing China's Digital Dystopian Dictatorship | Foreign Correspondent  (27:14)

China’s "Social Credit System" Has Caused More Than Just Public Shaming (5:44)

SOTN Episode 6: China's Social Credit System (1:14:52) At around 2:25, the video reiterates a key idea about the social credit system: “It works because people want to save face.”


  1. ^  For an example see "’There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat’—Chinese parents” on my blog.
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Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn (formerly known by the pseudonym Jackson Wu; PhD, Southeastern Baptist) is the theologian in residence with Global Training Network. He previously lived and worked in East Asia for almost two decades, teaching theology and missiology for Chinese pastors. He serves on the Asian/Asian-American theology steering committee of the Evangelical …View Full Bio

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