There is a great deal of controversy and myth surrounding the infamous social credit system (SCS) in China. Commentators in the West often portray the SCS as an omnipresent surveillance system imposed by the Chinese government on its citizens, feeding on their personal data for the purpose of authoritarian control. This Orwellian image of the SCS may reflect the zeitgeist of the age of surveillance capitalism, but how close is it to reality? At this research seminar organised by the Digital Organisation and Society (DOS) Research Centre at Royal Holloway, two prominent scholars of the SCS – Prof. Genia Kostka (Freie Universität Berlin) and Dr. Chenchen Zhang (Queen’s University Belfast) – will each present their research on the SCS to provide a more nuanced picture of the reality.
Time: 11-12:30pm, Tuesday 24th May
Livestreaming link: Please contact DOSdirectors@rhul.ac.uk if you want to join this event.
Welcome & Introduction: Dr Philip Wu, Royal Holloway
Talk 1 – Accepting but Not Engaging with It: Digital Participation in Local Government-Run Social Credit Systems in China
Prof Genia Kostka, Freie Universität Berlin
China’s central and municipal governments have consistently facilitated the development of social credit systems (SCSs) over the past decade. While research has highlighted the Chinese public’s high approval of and support for SCSs, their engagement with these digital projects has not been fully explored. This talk examines Chinese citizens’ digital participation in local government-run SCSs. Based on 64 semi-structured interviews, our most recent research findings suggests that, despite perceiving SCSs as accepting and positive, most interviewees do not actively engage with local government-run SCSs. Multiple factors can explain the gap between high acceptance and low participation, including a lack of awareness regarding local SCSs, a perception that registering and maintaining a decent credit score requires major effort, various concerns over SCSs (e.g., information privacy and safety, as well as algorithm accuracy and fairness), clarity of rules and guidelines, potential risks, unappealing benefits offered by SCSs, and the voluntariness of participating in local SCSs. Our research adds to the existing literature on digital governance in authoritarian contexts by explaining why Chinese citizens do not necessarily engage with state-promoted digital projects.
Research paper by Haili Li and Genia Kostka can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4066462
Prof Genia Kostka is a Professor of Chinese Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on digital transformation, environmental politics, and political economy with a regional focus on China. Her most recent research project explores how digital technologies are integrated into local decision-making and governance structures in China (ERC Starting Grant 2020-2025).
Talk 2 – Social credit as a governing technique, as imaginary, and as meme
Dr Chenchen Zhang, Queen’s University Belfast
This talk is interested in shifting focus from what China’s social credit system is or does to how it is talked about in academic and public discourse in China and elsewhere. It is concerned with what the discourse, imaginations, and memes of social credit could tell us about the politics of knowledge production and everyday international relations. After briefly introducing the institutional and ideational framework of the (actually existing) social credit system in China, I will review some of the recent controversies regarding the system in Chinese public discourse. This is followed by a consideration of the imaginations and myths of “Chinese social credit” produced by journalists, social theorists, political elites, and ordinary internet users located in the geopolitical space known as “the West”. Instead of “debunking the myth”, I seek to examine the functions of these persistent myths and the employment of social credit as a rhetorical figure in shaping Western images of China and images of technology. Of particular interest to this task is the development of a meme culture of social credit in transnational online communities. While the memeification of social credit exemplifies the networked and participatory nature of global digital culture, it is also conditioned by and reproducing traditional geopolitical boundaries and framings despite new patterns of decentralized global exchange.
Dr Chenchen Zhang is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests include discourse/identity, governmentality, popular geopolitics, and social media in both European and Chinese contexts. Her work has appeared in journals such as European Journal of International Relations, Citizenship Studies, Geopolitics, and European Journal of Social Theory.