Transforming Society for the Better?

Why China’s Social Credit Systems are Surprisingly Popular


  • Nadja Aldendorff



Social Credit System


In 2014, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released a document that called for the construction of a nationwide Social Credit System (SCS) with the goal to encourage sincerity and punish insincerity. The system uses blacklists that citizens land on for various cases of misbehavior, ranging from failing to pay a fine to being caught Jaywalking. This research explains the design process behind the SCS and in particular why many Chinese citizens are embracing this form of surveillance. It focuses on three topics to answer this question: the historical roots underlying the system, the perceived lack of trust in Chinese society and the comparison with concepts from surveillance theories developed in the West. From the analysis, following conclusions could be drawn: Historically, the state has often acted as a promoter and enforcer of moral virtue. The SCS fits perfectly into this tradition. The most prominent reason for the positive Chinese reaction is the lack of institutions in China that promote trust between citizens and businesses. There is a severe trust deficit which the government had to find a solution for. Regarding surveillance theory, Foucault’s concept of ‘panopticism’ shows similarities with the SCS and underlines its effectiveness in changing and steering people’s behavior while Lyon’s notion of ‘social sorting’ is used to demonstrate the potential dangers of the Chinese system.


Ahmed, S. (2017). Consumer Protection Oversights in the Chinese Social Credit System [Online research report]. Retrieved from

Amadeo, K. (2019, June 14). Largest Economies in the World. The Balance. Retrieved from

Ball, K. (2003). Categorizing the workers: Electronic surveillance and social ordering in the call center. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, risk and digital discrimination (pp. 201-225). London: Routledge.

Botsman, R. (2017, October 21). Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens. Wired. Retrieved from

Božovič, M. (Ed.). (2010). The panopticon writings. London: Verso Books.

Campbell, C. (2019, January 16). How China Is Using “Social Credit Scores” to Reward and Punish Its Citizens. Time. Retrieved from

Chen, D., Deakin, S., Siems, M., Wang, B. (2017). Law, trust and institutional change in China: Evidence from qualitative fieldwork. Journal of Corporate Law Studies, 17(2), 257–290. doi: 10.1080/14735970.2016.1270252

Chen, Y., & Cheung, A. S. (2017). The Transparent Self under Big Data Profiling: Privacy and Chinese Legislation on the Social Credit System. Journal of Comparative Law, 12(2), 356-378. Retrieved from

Cheng, K. (2019, May 16). China says its social credit system 'will restore morality' after blacklisting 13 million 'untrustworthy' people and banning swathes from trains and planes. Mail Online. Retrieved from

Cohen, D. (2011, September 21). China’s ‘Social Management’. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Creemers, R (2018). China’s social credit system: An evolving practice of control [Online paper]. Retrieved from

Daum, J. (2017, December 24). China through a glass, darkly: What foreign media misses in China’s social credit. China Law Translate. Retrieved from

Blaza. D. (2012, July 21). There is no trust in China and that’s a problem. EE Times. Retrieved from

Davenport, A. (2018, February 19). America Isn’t Far Off From China’s ‘Social Credit Score’. Observer. Retrieved from:

De Cremer, D. (2015, February 11). Understanding Trust, In China and the West. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Dirnhuber, J. (2019, May 20). China’s creepy ‘social credit’ system creates ‘dystopian nightmare’ that posts locations of blacklisted citizens and rewards others for grassing up their mates. The Sun. Retrieved from

Faubion, J. D. (Ed.). (2002). Power: essential works of Foucault 1954–1984 (Vol. 3). London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin.

Galič, M., Timan, T., Koops, B. (2017). Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation. Philosophy & Technology, 30(1), 9–37. doi: 10.1007/s13347-016-0219-1

Guo, X. (2012). China's security state: Philosophy, evolution, and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haggerty, K. (2006). Tear down the walls: on demolishing the panopticon. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Theorising surveillance: The panopticon and beyond (pp. 23–45). Portland: Willan Publishing.

Hawkins, A. (2017, May 24). Chinese Citizens Want the Government to Rank Them. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

Hoffman, S. (2017). Programming China: The Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security. China Monitor, 44, 1-12. Retrieved from

Hvistendahl, M. (2017, December 14). Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking. Wired. Retrieved from

Kobie, N. (2019, June 7). The complicated truth about China's social credit system. Wired. Retrieved from

Koetse, M. (2018a, October 30). Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media. What’s on Weibo. Retrieved from

Koetse, M. (2018b, September 20). “Tyrant Train Woman” Goes Trending on Weibo and Unleashes Flood of New Memes. What’s on Weibo. Retrieved from

Kostka, G. (2019). China’s social credit systems and public opinion: Explaining high levels of approval. New Media & Society, 44(4), 1-29. doi: 10.1177/1461444819826402

Kuo, L. (2019, March 1). China bans 23m from buying travel tickets as part of 'social credit' system. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Liang, F., Das, V., Kostyuk, N., & Hussain, M. (2018). Constructing a data-driven society: China’s social credit system as a state surveillance infrastructure. Policy & Internet, 10(4), 415-453. doi: 10.1002/poi3.183

Lyon, D. (2003a). Introduction. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, risk and digital discrimination (pp. 1-10). London: Routledge.

Lyon, D. (2003b). Surveillance as social sorting: computer codes and mobile bodies. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, risk and digital discrimination (pp. 13-30). London: Routledge.

Lyon, D. (2007). Surveillance, Security and Social Sorting: Emerging Research Priorities. International Criminal Justice Review, 17(3), 161-170. doi: 10.1177/1057567707306643

Ma, W. (2018, October 30). China has started ranking citizens with a creepy ‘social credit’ system — here’s what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Marr, B. (2019, January 21). Chinese Social Credit Score: Utopian Big Data Bliss Or Black Mirror On Steroids? Forbes. Retrieved from

Minter, A. (2019, January 24). Why Big Brother Doesn’t Bother Most Chinese. Bloomberg Opinion. Retrieved from

Mistreanu, S. (2018, April 3). Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory: The party’s massive experiment in ranking and monitoring Chinese citizens has already started. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

Mosher, S. W. (2019, May 18). China’s new ‘social credit system’ is a dystopian nightmare. New York Post. Retrieved from

Mozur, P. (2018, July 8). Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Ohlberg, M., Ahmed, S., & Lang, B. (2017). Central planning, local experiments: The complex implementation of China’s social credit system. China Monitor, 43, 1-15. Retrieved from

O’Meara, S. (2016, November 14). New App Rates Shanghai Citizens’ Honesty. Sixth Tone. Retrieved from

Palin, M. (2018, September 19). China’s ‘social credit’ system is a real-life ‘Black Mirror’ nightmare. New York Post. Retrieved from

Pence, M. (2018). Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China [Transcript]. Retrieved from

Pettit, H. (2018, September 19). Black Mirror is almost a reality: China says it's on track to launch its dystopian scorecard system that ranks citizens on every aspect of their behaviour by 2020. Mail Online. Retrieved from

Qiang, X. (2019). The Road to Digital Unfreedom: President Xi's Surveillance State. Journal of Democracy, 30(1), 53-67. Retrieved from

Rogers, P. (2019, May 28). Is China’s social credit system coming to Australia? The Conversation. Retrieved from

Seidel, A. (2019, January 2). Understanding China’s Social Credit System and What it Means for Consumers. Branding in Asia. Retrieved from

Song, B. (2018, November 29). The West may be wrong about China’s social credit system. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

State Council. (2007). Guiding Opinions concerning the Constructions of a Social Credit System (R. Creemers, Trans.). Retrieved from

State Council. (2014). Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System 2014-2020 (R. Creemers, Trans.). Retrieved from

Tai, Z. (2010). Casting the Ubiquitous Net of Information Control. International Journal of Advanced Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, 2(1), 53–70. doi: 10.4018/japuc.2010010104

Walton, G. (2001). China's golden shield: Corporations and the development of surveillance technology in the People's Republic of China. Montreal: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

Wang, Y., & Minzner, C. (2015). The Rise of the Chinese Security State. The China Quarterly, 222, 339–359. doi: 10.1017/S0305741015000430

Yan, S. (2019, May 4). China Uber-rates its citizens... A harmless nudge? Or sinister surveillance society? The Telegraph. Retrieved from