“The year 2018 has been a crucial year in the development of China’s Social Credit System (社会信用体系),” lawyer Ju (居小森律师) writes on Weibo this week.
The past year has indeed been the year of China’s Social Credit System: it was an important year for the system’s implementation, and it also became one of the most discussed China-related news topics in international media1 – using sci-fi vocabulary, powerful emotional words, suspenseful music, and dramatic images in their SCS-focused stories, the SCS is presented much differently in Western media than it is within the PRC.
SCS: From Google to Weibo Trends
From October 2017 to October 2018 alone, the Google search engine comes up with more than six million results in a search for the term “China social credit system” in English. Showing all results from before this time, there are 160 million results for the term in total.
Google Trends statistics show that worldwide interest in China’s Social Credit System had its absolute peak in the past year, and that Black Mirror, the British science fiction series exploring the dark consequences of new technologies, is one of the terms that is most associated with the web search query ‘China’s social credit system.’
Black Mirror is a highly popular series on Netflix, of which one 2016 episode called ‘Nosedive’ revolved around a dystopian society where people are judged by a numeric rating given to them by their interactions with other people, affecting their opportunities in life. This episode is often connected to China’s SCS by Western blogs or news sites.
The Black Mirror association with ‘social credit’ does not only come up on Google Trends. On Twitter, for example, some of the hashtags most related to the term also includes “#blackmirror.”
In contrast to the English term, with 160 million results, the Chinese term for the social credit system (社会信用体系) comes up with only 19,2 million total search results on Google. Google Trends also shows a rather minimal interest in the Chinese term compared to its English equivalent.
Although that result is somewhat flawed (the Google search engine is blocked in mainland China), Baidu, one of China’s most popular search engines, also gives a comparatively small total of 7,7 million results for the same Chinese web search query.
All in all, there are clear indications that the attention for the Chinese Social Credit System in the international English-language online media environment is much bigger than that within China.
While the Social Credit System (SCS) is being mentioned on Twitter almost every five to ten minutes at time of writing, it is only being discussed on Weibo with intervals of minimally one or two hours by posts that are barely getting likes or comments.2
So what does this all mean? How come that there is so much appetite for this topic outside of China, while inside the PRC, where the ‘system’ is well underway, there is a lesser public interest in its development?
What Actually is the Social Credit System?
In the book Social Credit Law: Principles, Rules and Cases, author Luo Peixin explains Social Credit as follows:
“Social Credit is a management system that takes big data as its basis, is supported by technological capacities, and is backed by law [legal provisions]; it is an important modern method to forward the country’s governance systems and management capabilities” (3).
Rather than one system or database, the Social Credit System is an overall policy or ideology, a mechanism of punishments and rewards, that is allegedly “meant to improve the integrity and trust level of the whole society” (creditchina.gov.cn).
In 2014, the Chinese government announced its first plans on the construction of a nationwide Social Credit System to be rolled out by 2020. For now, there is not one system in place, but rather a collection of different implementations and experiments across various regions and cities across China.
What they all have in common, though, is that individuals, corporations, or agencies are being assessed based on their ‘trustworthiness’ (Kostka 2018, 1).
The past summer has seen some important developments in the realization of a national Social Credit System. In the Chinese state media article “The Credit Society is Coming, Are You Ready for It?” [“信用社会来临，你准备好了吗”], People’s Daily notes that new Social Credit terms such as “blacklists” (黑名单) will become more ubiquitous in daily life from now on.
Earlier this year, the first names on the ‘lose trust list’ (失信人名单) – meaning those who have failed in complying with their public commitments or court orders – were reported to the Chinese railway and aviation departments by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) to block these people from traveling.
Other Chinese cities are frequently added to the ‘credit cities’ list. Dalian, for example, is one of the cities that is highlighted by Chinese media this month for “steadily advancing” its Social Credit System implementation. The city has introduced an automated administrative process at its Public Resources Trading Center, in which people who are found to have bad credit will automatically be refused the handling of business.
It is just one among dozens of examples of how various cities and regions in China are experimenting with Social Credit and both punitive and rewarding measures.
Besides the SCS initiatives being implemented by local governments, commercial companies are also participating in making China a more credit-based society. Users who opt in to Alibaba’s Sesame Credit loyalty program system, for example, can enjoy many benefits if they have a good credit score (650+), such as borrowing books from the local library for free, or using share bikes without deposit (more on Sesame Credit and its perks here).
According to Weibo user ‘Lawyer Ju’, the broad credit system “covers both economic credit systems and social integrity systems,” within which the blacklist system is getting “more and more important”, adding that “the joint structure of ‘lose trust in one place, and there’s no place to go’ [一处失信、处处受限] will soon be here.”
Weibo Focus: No Bad Deed Should Go Unpunished
Lawyer Ju is not the only Weibo user who seems rather optimistic and happy about the implementation of a system that governs society based on trust.
Although major discussions on the actual ‘Social Credit System’ – using that exact term (社会信用体系) – are practically non-existent on Weibo, there are other examples of trending topics linked to the system that have gone viral lately.
One noteworthy example is the topic of two ‘Train Tyrants‘ that went trending on Chinese social media since August of this year.
It all started with the “Highspeed Train Tyrant” (高铁霸座男) in September. It is a nickname that was given to a man who refused to give up the seat he took from another passenger on the G334 express train to Beijing in late August, and whose bizarre and rude behavior was caught on video.
The other train bully that went viral in September, is a woman from Hunan who was dubbed ‘High-Speed Train Tyrant Woman’ (高铁霸座女) by Weibo netizens.
She had taken a seat assigned to another passenger while riding the train from Yongzhou to Shenzhen. A video (YouTube link here) shows how the woman makes a scene when the train conductor tells her she is in the wrong seat; she refuses to get up, raises her voice, talks rudely to the conductor, and simply claims she has bought a ticket and will not change to another seat until she has reached her final destination.
With more than 600 million combined views on the stories of the highspeed ‘Train Tyrants’, making them one of the bigger news stories of the year, the unruly behavior of passengers on Chinese public transport system made headlines. When news came out that both ‘bullies’ were fined and blacklisted by the Chinese railways (banning them from boarding trains for 180 days, see this article by Jeremy Daum for more on the legal aspects), many commenters applauded the system – although some deemed it not punitive enough (“180 days and a 200 yuan [$28] fine is nothing!“).
Although this case concerned a Railway-specific blacklist, many people commented that this blacklisting system should also be applied to people disturbing the order in hospitals, for example, and that it should be linked with the nationwide Social Credit System.
Moreover, many deemed that the Social Credit System should be even more punitive to people disturbing the public order, saying they “only had themselves to blame” (“咎由自取”), and it is a mere matter of “how karma works.”
Twitter Focus: China’s Scary Social Credit System
Meanwhile, on Twitter, a very different Social Credit story is going viral. A two-minute short video published by the Economist on October 26 titled “How Does China’s Social Credit System Work?” has more than 275,000 views on Twitter alone at time of writing (Update 23.00 China time: Economist has removed the video within hours after this article was posted).
Accompanied by suspenseful music, the video starts by captioning that by 2020, “the Chinese government will give all 1.4bn of its citizens a personal score based on how they behave.”
It further alleges that the ‘system’ will “track people’s activities on the Internet,” and that “what they buy, view, and say online will all be analysed,” followed by the claim that “this data will then be evaluated and distilled into a single number according to rules set by the government.”
The Economist video then focuses on surveillance cameras “that track people’s behavior in public”, suggesting that someone’s “score” could be lowered by crossing a red light, and that 12 million people have already been “punished for having a low score” through domestic travel bans.
Among thousands of reactions on the video, many compared China to an “Orwellian surveillance state” or a “Black Mirror episode.”
This recent Economist video is but one of dozens of examples of international media outlets describing China’s Social Credit System within a certain framework, mainly linking it to terms such as ‘punishment,’ ‘surveillance,’ and ‘individual scores.’
Many of these news stories suggest that every Chinese citizen will be assigned a ‘score’, or that people’s mere way behaving in public will be able to lower that ‘score’, resulting in ‘punishment’ (FYI: there is no indication that there will be one ‘score’ for citizens in a nationwide SCS, also see this article).
These stories are often grossly conflating the (optional) commercial credit systems, such as Sesame Credit, with national government policies and local experiments. (For more about this, also check this article).
Dramatically Different Approaches
By just comparing the previously mentioned examples of the Train Tyrant viral story in China, and the Economist viral video, one can get a glimpse of the great gap in (social) media approaches of the Social Credit System in China and in Western media.4
In the international media headlines, powerful emotional words like ‘chilling’, ‘creepy’, or ‘dystopian’ are often used. Perhaps not coincidentally, marketers since long know that readers react more strongly to ‘alert words’ that make us feel anxious, such as ‘afraid’, ‘scare’, ‘risk’, and ‘alarm’ – which are all great words to get more engagement with social media users, and thus will result in more clicks.
As ‘sexy’ as the SCS might seem in Western media, as ‘dry’ it can seem in the Chinese media context, where the most powerful words used in headlines are terms as ‘trust’, ‘harmony’ or ‘blacklist’, and where there are no dramatic images; occasionally there is a featured photo of officials having a meeting (to see more on how state media propagates the SCS through cartoons, click here).
This difference in the framing of SCS between Western publications and Chinese articles can also be seen in the specific words used in SCS-focused news stories.
The word clouds below show the most used words in three typical SCS articles from Western mainstream media (Independent, Guardian, and ABC), and three typical English-language Chinese state media articles on SCS (namely Global Times, Xinhua, and China Daily ).
While there are many words overlapping between the two examples, the most-used words in these Western media sources (left) are words as ‘system’, ‘list’, ‘citizen’, ‘behaviour’, ‘score’, and ‘government’, whereas the Chinese state media sources (right) more commonly use words as ‘business’, ‘law’, ‘market’, and ‘build.’
Doing the same experiment with Chinese-language state media articles on the SCS (Sina News, People’s Daily, and Guangming Daily) shows that ‘trust’ or ‘credit’ (信用) and ‘building’ (建设) are among the most-used words, with terms such as ‘enjoy together’, ‘cooperate’, or ‘unite’ frequently popping up.
The different public attitude towards the SCS implementation in China versus the Western media discourse on the issue, is also illustrated in a recent study by Genia Kostka (2018), that investigates Chinese citizens’ attitudes towards social credit systems. Rather than thinking of it as a ‘creepy’ or ‘dystopian’ system, it showed that SCSs actually have very high levels of approval across the respondent groups in the study (her work can be viewed here).
Social Credit Accounts without Followers
Ever since the 2014 plans of China’s Social Credit implementation were announced, Chinese social media has seen dozens of regional, urban, district-based ‘Social Credit’ accounts pop up on Weibo and WeChat to inform netizens of local developments.
The online presence of these local social credit programmes signals that Weibo and Wechat may have hundreds of these accounts in the future informing citizens/netizens of new measures and guidelines.
However, the fanbase numbers of these accounts, again, reflect that there does not seem to be that much interest for the nascent SCS implementations.
A brief overview of some of these Weibo accounts:
* Credit Suzhou @苏州工业园区信用平台
First post on record: September 29, 2015
* Liaoning Credit @信用辽宁
Followers at time of writing: 764
First post on record: August 1, 2012
* Wuhu Credit
Followers at time of writing: 14
First post on record: August 22, 2016
* Beijing City Social Credit Building Promotional Association @北京市社会公信建设促进会
Followers at time of writing: 14913
First post on record: September 17, 2014
* China Trustworthy Guangzhou @中国诚信广州
Followers at time of writing: 383
First post on record: June 20, 2012
* Honest Suqian @诚信宿迁
Followers at time of writing: 21
First post on record: September 9, 2014
With more than 24,000 followers, the Weibo account of commercial credit system Sesame Credit (@芝麻信用) is much more popular than the government-related management programmes.
Perhaps the topic of SCS, for many Chinese, is lacking the ‘Black Mirror’ appeal it has for many Western consumers of news. Perhaps ‘harmony’ and ‘trust’ are not as click-worthy as ‘creepy’ and ‘dystopian’?
On Weibo, Lawyer Ju is confident in the future of SCS in China: “Whether it’s from a social, corporate, or individual perspective,” he writes: “‘trust’ is now everywhere; it’s become a necessary ‘virtual asset.’ The gradual improvement of the construction of a legal credit system is the fundamental policy in order to regulate the market economy.”
Although his message is sound and clear, it is perhaps also somewhat boring and dry: it has not received any likes or shares to date. Meanwhile, on Twitter, the Economist‘s suspenseful video on China’s grim SCS future has received more than 280,000 views, and counting. “Oh my god!”, one popular reply to the video says: “This is just like that Black Mirror episode!”
(Update 23.00 China time: Economist has removed the video within hours after this article was posted).
1 This article talks about ‘international’ or ‘Western’ media to show a clear difference from Chinese media. Although the term can be understood in many ways, we mean it here to address mainstream English-language (news) sources of media outlets from mainly the US, Europe, and Australia.
2 Please note that there is currently no reason to assume that discussions of this specific topic are being censored: censorship scanning sites such as Free Weibo show no signs that posts using the term are specifically targeted, and state media and local governments are actually trying to start up discussions on this topic, as I will briefly touch upon later on in this article.
3 Namely Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Weifang, Yiwu, and Rongcheng.
4 Note that these are just small examples within a big and complicated discourse that has more sides to it than this article allows to zoom in on.
Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].
Luo Peixin 罗培新. 2018. Social Credit Law: Principles, Rules and Cases [社会信用法：原理、规则、案例]. Beijing: Peking University Press.
People’s Daily. 2018. “Observing the Social Credit System: The Credit Society is Coming, Are You Ready for It? [观察社会信用体系：信用社会来临，你准备好了吗].” Xinhua June 4. Available online at http://www.xinhuanet.com/2018-06/04/c_1122931164.htm [29.10.18].
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In China’s “Kua Kua” Chat Groups, People Pay to Be Praised [Updated]
Money can’t buy you love, but in these ‘kua kua’ groups, they can buy you praise.
A new phenomenon has become a hot topic on Chinese social media these days. ‘Kua kua’ groups (夸夸群) are chat groups where people share some things about themselves – even if they are negative things – and where other people will always tell them how great they are, no matter what.
Kua kua groups (夸 ‘kuā‘ literally means ‘praise’) have become all the rage in China. People seem to love them for the mere fact that it makes them feel good about themselves.
The format is clear. Person A tells about something that is on their minds, and asks people for positive feedback. Person B, C, and D will then come forward and tell them how good or pretty they are, sometimes based on their profile photo.
One could say: “Hi everyone, I’ve just turned down a job offer, but now my future is full of uncertainty, please compliment me.” Then people in the chat group will respond and say things such as: “You look like the type of person who knows exactly what they want.”
The Kua kua praise group phenomenon allegedly began within the online community of Xi’an Jiaotong University – although some claim it was Shanghai’s Fudan University – when one person asked others in a chat group to compliment them. The idea started to compliment and praise others, and so a trend was born; first, in university (BBS) chat groups, and now on WeChat and beyond the realm of universities.
The phenomenon has been around for at least six years, but only recently started gaining widespread attention on Chinese social media. According to China’s Toutiao News, virtually every college now has its own ‘praise group.’
But the praise does not always come for free. Although many (college-based) chat groups are free to join, people who want to be complimented and are not yet a member of an existing group can join Kua kua groups when they pay for it. On Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, there are various online shops that sell a ‘Praise group’ membership starting from 50 yuan ($7,5) per person, going up to 188 yuan ($28).
The time of praise is limited to five minutes unless you pay more. The quality of the compliments you’ll be getting also depends on how much you pay. Some groups allegedly consist of “students of great talent,” and the number of people complimenting one person could reach up to 500 people.
The contents of the praise could literally be anything. A simple “I want to be praised” comment could get a variety of reactions from “your hat looks nice” to “the fact that you’re so honest and straightforward about what you want is something that is hard to come across in this day and age,” to “you used a period mark [at the end of your sentence], you must be someone who is very persistent in reaching your goals.”
The fact that the “Kua kua” phenomenon is such a success in China might relate to its culture, where humility and modesty are considered ideal in day-to-day communications. When given a compliment, it is common in China to deny it or to suggest that the person giving the compliment is much better than they are (also see Cheng 2003, 30).
These chat groups, however, break away from the dominant cultural interactions: people don’t have to be polite in responding to the compliments and can wallow in the praise they paid for.
Although not as big as the “Kua Kua” group phenomenon, these kinds of groups also exist in the English-language social media sphere. On Reddit’s “Toast Me” page, for example, there are some 92,000 subscribers participating in asking and giving positive feedback to others, albeit unpaid.
The people giving compliments in the Chinese Kua kua groups are random people, some students, some staff of Taobao stores, who get hongbao, red envelopes with digital money gifts, for contributing to the group. According to some reports, some ‘customers’ end up staying the group and become a part of the team themselves.
We will follow up on this later: we booked a ‘five-minute praise session’ ourselves, but are still awaiting admission to the group…
Update: Our Kua Kua Experience
So what is the Kua kua experience like? We decided to try out for ourselves and purchased a 5-minute praise session through Taobao for 50 yuan ($7,5) from a seller that had a good rating.
After the purchase is completed, the seller will contact you with details asking for your WeChat ID. After adding, they will ask you what your ‘problem’ or issue is, and you will be put in a virtual queue until your turn comes up to be praised.
You’ll then be added to a WeChat group that has your name in the headline (ours was something like “Manya you can do it”) and that has around 200 participants.
The message posted by us was:
“Hello, I’m Manya (Dutch). I’ve been studying Chinese for more than ten years. In fact, I’m afraid to say it may even be more than 13 years, but I still often don’t understand what Beijing taxi drivers are saying. Even studying every day won’t help. I’ve been learning for so many years, yet I often still don’t understand what the old people in Beijing are saying. It’s a bit embarrassing. I think my Chinese is still not good enough. I can’t understand the ‘crosstalk’ [comedy sketches] during the Spring Festival Gala at all. It makes me feel a little dispirited.”
Within a matter of seconds, the screen then just fills up with positive feedback and emoji. There are dozens of comments, and they almost go too fast to read them all.
Some of the responses:
“You’re great, and even I don’t understand Beijing taxi drivers.”
“Stay confident in yourself!”
“You’re so cool.”
“You can type so many Chinese characters, who’d say your Chinese is not good enough?!”
“Manya, you’re so fantastic.”
“None of us understand what old people in Beijing are saying.”
“Chinese is just not easy to study, the fact that you’ve been doing it for so long already shows how great you are.”
“It’s incredible that you’ve already come this far.”
“A woman who is so motivated about studying really moves me, you’re my role model, you make me want to study more English.”
During the praise session, the group leader will occasionally post a hongbao [envelope with money] for the participants to receive in return for their compliments.
After five minutes, the session ends, and the people will send out some last words of encouragement. The group leader will personally thank you for being part of the group, and later, you’ll be removed from the group as the people will move on to the next person who is waiting in line to be praised.
How does it feel to be praised by some 200 people, receiving hundreds of compliments? It’s overwhelming, and even though you know it’s all just an online mechanism, and that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you say, it still makes you glow a little bit inside.
Although some experts quoted by Chinese state media warn people not to rely on these praise groups too much, there does not seem to be much harm in allowing yourself to be complimented for some minutes from time to time.
Other people reviewing the same Kua kua group apparently feel the same: “I’m super satisfied, the result is amazing.”
Featured image via hexun.com.
Cheng, Winnie. 2003. Intercultural Communication. Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing.
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China Youth Federation: Ban Minors from Live Streaming Platforms
If implemented, this would mean a big blow to China’s live streaming market.
Chinese minors will no longer be able to do live streaming if it is up to the All-China Youth Federation (ACYF, 中国青联). The China Youth Federation submitted the proposal during the Two Sessions (Lianghui), China’s largest annual legislative meetings.
The China Youth Federation is an organization to represent China’s youth groups founded in 1949, that has the Communist Youth League of China as its core.
China’s live streaming market is booming. Sina News reports that some 425 million netizens used live streaming platforms in 2018. According to the Online Information Center of the Communist Youth League, Chinese minors are particularly active live streamers: 6.4% of live stream users are primary school students, 18.3% of them are junior high school students and 20.3% are senior high schoolers.
There are dozens of live streaming platforms in China, with this list of apps, including the short video & live stream platforms Douyin and Kuaishou, being among the most popular ones. If the law would be implemented, China’s thriving live streaming market would certainly suffer a big blow.
Earlier this week, Sixth Tone already reported that “protecting minors online” would be among one of the important themes discussed by tech leaders at the Two Sessions.
On Saturday, March 9, the hashtag “Proposal to Ban Minors from Engaging in Livestreaming” (#建议禁止未成年人担任网络主播#) [basically meaning “prohibiting minors from being online hosts”] became top trending on Weibo, attracting more than 180 million views. Various Chinese state media sources state that the live streaming industry is in “a state of chaos” and needs stricter control to protect minors, who could easily come into contact with “vulgar” and “inappropriate” content through live streaming platforms.
The ban could be realized by implementing stricter controls on the registration process of China’s various live-streaming networks. This could suggest that the measures would go beyond minors just being banned from live streaming themselves.
“I support this proposal, live streaming platforms are not appropriate for minors,” a popular comment said, with many Weibo users agreeing: “Young people should focus on their schoolwork instead.”
But not everyone agrees with stricter controls on China’s online platforms. One commenter wrote: “Officials can have multiple wives, rich people have multiple women, yet if common people watch live streams where some vulgar language or sensitive content occasionally pops up, then it’s not allowed.”
“What should be banned is vulgar content, not minor users,” others write.
Earlier this week, Beijing News reported that Yan Xiaohong (阎晓宏), director of the Chinese Copyright Association, also submitted a proposal relating to minors using the internet. Yan’s proposal goes much further than that of the ACYF: he suggests that special online platforms should be developed for minors, and argues that it is not good for China’s youth to be able to access the same online content as adults.
By Manya Koetse
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