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China’s Social Credit System: Less Than Meets the Eye?


One of the mantras that I have been using for years in helping others (and myself) understand the complexities of China is “nothing is as it seems.” After listening to the Sinica Podcast episode titled “Myth-busting China’s Social Credit System,” I realize this is true when it comes to technology, surveillance, and the social credit system in China.

Host Kaiser Kuo invited Rogier Creemers, a researcher who focuses on Chinese governance and digital policy, and Manya Koetse, editor and founder of What’s on Weibo to join him for a discussion of what the social credit system is (and isn’t), and of the different cultural frames of reference that westerners and Chinese use when looking at and evaluating the system.

For anyone even remotely interested in this topic, the podcast is a “must-listen.” Here are some key takeaways:

1.  One of the main drivers of the development of the system is an attempt to address the cheating and corruption that are rampant in China’s developing market economy. It is also an attempt to construct an individual consumer credit system, which China has lacked because it has been (until recently) a cash-based economy.

2. There is confusion in western reporting between the government-sponsored social credit system and Sesame Credit, a commercial product of Ant Financial, a company affiliated with Alibaba, which operates Alipay.  

3. In China, the official messaging is that it is about creating a culture of trust. It is a way to reward those who deserve to be rewarded and punish those who need to be punished.

4. Based on social media monitoring, much of the response on the part of the public seems to be positive. This is likely not due to censorship of negative responses, but to a different cultural frame of reference.

5. The differences between western and Chinese perceptions are rooted in different ideas of the relationship between the state and society. The state’s desire for obedience and virtuous living is not an illegitimate desire in China (now, or historically). The west tends to focus on the political dimension, while ignoring the fact that there are economic and cultural dimensions as well.

6. To date, there is not one big data -driven national social credit system actually in place. Rather, there are various local and regional systems that are in place mainly as “amplification devices” for the enforcement of existing regulations and laws (jaywalking, for instance).  It is better to think of it as an ecosystem.

Whatever your venue for listening to podcasts (driving, exercising, sitting in an easy chair with a cup of coffee), get this one queued up!

Recommended reading

Blacklists and Redlists: How China’s Social Credit System Really Works, by Christopher Udemans (October 23, Technode)

China's Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control, by Rogier Creemers (SSRN)
(This is the paper that launched most reporting on the topic, reporting that Creemers suggest most reporters misunderstood.)

Image credit: Be Civil, by Philip W., via Flickr
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio


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