Mythbusting China’s social credit system


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This week on Sinica, Kaiser traveled across the Atlantic to host a live podcast at the Asia Society of Switzerland in Zurich. The topic of discussion is the social credit system (SCS) in China, a fiercely debated and highly controversial subject in the West, often construed as a monolithic and Orwellian initiative. Our guests are Manya Koetse, editor and founder of What’s on Weibo — a wonderful resource that aggregates and examines trending information from social media platform Sina Weibo — and Rogier Creemers, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Leiden, who has done extensive research on China’s governance and digital policy and has translated extensive primary source materials from Chinese government sources and publications on SCS.

Rogier and Manya provide fresh perspectives on a subject that has become a wedge in the China-watching community. They discuss the varying perceptions of SCS around the world; what observers have gotten right and wrong about the system according to government publications; the relative lack of integration in the many different moving parts that comprise the SCS; and the changing role of technology in daily life and how big of a role that could play when one thinks of social credit.

What to listen for this week on the Sinica Podcast:

13:19: Manya explains to Kaiser that “We in the West have somehow been trapped in this one-dimensional vision of this system, or this policy. Just looking at it from that angle, politically and also from the idea that it’s the state versus the people. Always the state versus the people … and it’s much more multidimensional than that.”

27:01: Is discussion of social credit systems suppressed in China? Manya answers, “This was a little bit difficult for me … I see it everywhere on Twitter, but it’s not a trending topic on Weibo, so I was looking on Weibo on what to write about.” Kaiser asks if this is because of internet censorship, to which Manya responds, “I don’t think so … there are some websites like [that show uncensored trending topics] and social credit system definitely is not one of them. Another thing is that state media is trying to propagate articles that are about the system and various local credit systems are on Weibo. If anything I have the feeling that there are probably people out there that wish this was more talked about on Weibo.”

37:16: Despite popular belief, there is local pushback against some local credit systems, which Rogier elaborates on: “One of the local trials, run in a place called Suining close to Shanghai in Jiangsu province, was actually shut down after it was criticized quite harshly in national official media. There is some jostling for ‘we want the system on the whole,’ but as with any system there are going to be negative consequences … not to want to present the Chinese government as more benevolent than it is … but it is also too simplistic to say that this is top-down impulse, no questions asked.”

43:01: Rogier provides two key takeaways to Kaiser’s question on how our expectations towards the world outside of the West have changed in the age of the internet. How have our perceptions of technology changed in the modern era? Towards China as a rising technological power? What role is an acceptable role for technology to play in our lives and in governance?


Kaiser: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Alexandre Dumas written by Tom Reiss.

Rogier: DigiChina, a platform for information on the development of China’s digital economy and digital politics, and The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.

Manya:, a digital platform for studying the Manchu language.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.