“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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Full Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post and Timeline of Events
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, a Weibo post by the 35-year-old Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帅) sent shockwaves across social media. In her lengthy post, the three-time Olympian describes details surrounding an alleged affair she had with the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), who served as China’s senior Vice-Premier (2013-2018) and was also a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017).
Here, we will give you a short timeline of the things that unfolded from the moment Peng Shuai’s story was published on Weibo, as well as providing the full text of her post and a translation.
Timeline of Events
November 2nd, 2021
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai posts her story on her Weibo account, where she has over 590,000 followers. The post comes online at 22:07 and is sent through a mobile phone.
Although Peng’s post was only online for about twenty minutes before it was deleted, its impact was irreversible. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account remained online, but the name ‘Peng Shuai’ started to be censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, where online discussions about the tennis player and Zhang Gaoli were soon silenced. Peng Shuai’s post and the ensuing silence triggered a wave of global concern about her wellbeing and whereabouts.
November 3, 2021
Peng Shuai’s story makes headlines in the international media, with many Western media outlets describing the issue as a “#MeToo allegation.” within the context of the global #MeToo movement, suggesting Peng’s post was a “MeToo post.” The tennis star did not mention ‘#Metoo’ in her own writings.
November 16, 2021
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka attracts more international attention for Peng’s whereabouts when she posts the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. Two days later, tennis star Serena Williams also writes on Twitter: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
November 17, 2021
While the issue is still completely silenced in Chinese (social) media, the English-language state media outlet CGTN addresses the commotion on Twitter on November 17, when they share a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Peng to WTA Chairman Steve Simon, saying she was not actually missing and not unsafe.
November 19, 2021
While many people still raised their concerns on Twitter – and a White House spokesperson even said the Biden administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports alleging that Peng Shuai had gone missing – photos of Peng Shuai in her home showed up on November 19th, posted on Twitter by Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟) claiming the tennis star posted them on her WeChat moments herself.
November 20, 2021
One day later, a video was also shared on Twitter by the same Shen, showing Peng enjoying dinner with friends and having conversations in which it was clearly indicated that the date was November 20, 2021.
November 21, 2021
During that very same weekend of November 20-21, Peng also reappeared in public when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. This was also the very first time in 19 days that she ‘reappeared’ in mainland China’s online media spheres, where photos of her attendance at the games were also shared online.
On that same day, it was announced by the Olympics governing body that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute long video phone call with Peng Shuai. Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, reportedly were also on the call, during which Peng explained that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected.
November 22, 2021
A Weibo post published by the French embassy in Beijing marks the first time for Peng Shuai’s case to be addressed on Chinese social media.
In their post, the French embassy expresses concerns about the lack of information surrounding Peng Shuai, and reiterates its belief in promoting freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. The post receives many replies, but its comment section is heavily censored.
December 1st, 2021
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) announces the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.
In a statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO, the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, was said to also be related to concerns about risks that all players and staff could face if the WTA were to hold events in China in 2022.
Due to the Covid19 situation, there were no WTA events scheduled for China in the near future.
December 7, 2021
The US announces a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. American athletes will still compete at the Winter Games. Although this boycott was not necessarily directed linked to Peng Shuai, many media outlets did connect it to concerns over the tennis player.
December 19, 2021
In an interview with Singapore-based media outlet Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Peng Shuai claims she did not accuse Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.
A video issued by Lianhe Zaobao shows a reporter asking Peng questions during a skiing competition event in Shanghai, where Peng could be seen talking to Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. When the reporter asks Peng if she is free, she answers that she has always been free and is not being monitored.
When the reporter addresses the allegations of sexual assault, Peng says:
“First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”
Peng also confirms that the English email that was screenshotted and published by CGTN on November 17 was written by her in the Chinese version, but that it was translated into English for her since her English language skills aren’t good enough to write such an email herself.
Full Text Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post
In a previous post, What’s on Weibo gave a partial translation of Peng’s Weibo post. Here, we will provide a full translation. Please note that this is a translation provided by What’s on Weibo and not an official translation issued by any other party.
“I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say. But I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you had retired and asked Dr. Liu from the Tianjin Tennis Center to contact me again to play tennis at the Kang Ming Hotel in Beijing. After we finished playing in the afternoon, you and your wife Kang Jie took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.”
“I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, someone was guarding outside, because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this. Seven year earlier we had sexual relations once, and then you – promoted as a member of the Standing Committee – went to Beijing and never contacted me again. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me [逼 = force, press for] into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything afterward, but it is true that you liked me first, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a way to come into contact with you.”
“That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time, and I still had dinner with you and auntie Kang Jie together. You said the universe is so big, that the earth is just a grain of sand in the universe, and that we as mankind are not even a grain of sand, and you said a lot more to alleviate the load on my mind. After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc. I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed…yes, we had sex.”
“The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterward, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well. We would talk about anything from modern history to ancient times, you spoke to me about so much knowledge and talked about economic philosophy, [we had] endless talks about topics. We played chess together, sang songs, played ping pong, billiards, and, including tennis, we could always have a good time. Our personalities got along well together, it looked like we were a great match.”
“Since I left home early in my childhood, I felt a lack of love in my heart. Facing everything that was happening, I never thought I was a good girl. I really hated myself, hated why I had to come into this world and experience this disaster. You told me that you loved me, very very much, and that in the next life you hoped to meet me when you are 20 and I am 18 years old. You said you were very lonely, that you felt miserable, we had days of endless chats, endless talks, you said there was no way for you to divorce in your position, that if we’d met while you were in Shandong, you could have still divorced, but that there was no way now. I thought about staying with you like this without attracting public attention, which was okay in the beginning, but the days slowly started to change, and there was too much injustice and insult. Every time you let me go, your wife would say many offensive insulting words to me behind your back, [giving me] all kinds of sneers. When I said I like to eat duck tongue, auntie Kang Jie would go and say ~ ugh, how disgusting. During Beijing’s winter smog, I said sometimes the air is not very good, and auntie Kang Jie would tell me ‘that’s just your suburbs, we do not notice a thing here.’ And so on, there were many of such talks, but she would never do it when you were there. It was similar to when we were together – when it was just the two of us you’d be this way, when there were others there you’d act that way. I told you that these kinds of words were really painful to hear.”
“From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace (甄嬛传), and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself. I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”
“There was a big dispute on the night of the 30th [October], and you told me to come to your place on the afternoon of the 2nd [November] so we could talk things over. Today a phone call came that something had come up and you’d contact me again. Evading everything, with the excuse that we would get in touch another day ……, this is the same “disappearing act” as seven years ago, getting rid of me after you’re done playing with me. You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences. I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it. You always said you hoped your mother in heaven could bless and protect you. I am a bad woman who doesn’t deserve to be a mother, but you are a father with both a son and a daughter. I have asked you this before: if it was your adopted daughter, would you have forced her to do this? Do you still have the courage to face your mother after everything you’ve done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pose as people with high morals…”
By Manya Koetse
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Mainstream, Underground, and Online: Electronic Dance Music in China
A peek into China’s electronic dance music scene, from Jean Michel Jarre to the country’s post-covid club scene.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
More DJs, more festivals, more fans, more online communities. Over the past few years, China’s dance music scene has seen enormous growth in popularity, and electronic music now appears wherever people go, both online and offline, from live music events, night clubs, and fashion shows to reality shows, movies, and social media.
Following the continued explosion of electronic music culture in China’s major cities, DJMag, a renowned UK-based platform dedicated to electronic dance music, even launched a special China Awards section in 2021. In this year’s Top 100 DJ list there are eight Chinese DJs, the highest number ever since a DJ from China first made the list in 2017.
As an unexpected consequence of the pandemic, China’s local dance community has seen heightened popularity of local DJs. While Covid19 has seriously affected the global dance music scene, it has been an ongoing opportunity to shine for local talents in mainland China.
Just five years ago, China-based DJ Spencer Tarring discussed the huge potential of China as “the rising promised land for electronic dance music.” But what’s the status quo of China’s dance and DJ culture? Here we’ll explore China’s electronic music scene, from mainstream to underground and the online community.
From ‘EDM’ to ‘Haoshi’
Let’s first explain some terminology. ‘Electronic dance music’ is actually a huge umbrella term for percussion-based electronic music produced primarily for nightclubs, raves, and festivals, and performed/presented by DJs. In Europe, electronic dance music is often simply called ‘dance’ or ‘dance music,’ with subgenres including techno, house, trance, and many others (deBoni 2018).
There’s also the acronym ‘EDM.’ Although it literally stands for ‘Electronic Dance Music,’ it is not the same as the overarching ‘electronic dance music’ genre, as it was adopted in the US to label commercial dance music. It has since been commonly used to solely describe the mainstream electronic dance music that is represented by world-famous DJs such as Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Armin van Buuren, or David Guetta (see Androids 2017; Jori 2021; Magnetic 2021).
In Mandarin Chinese, the term Diànzǐ yīnyuè (电子音乐), often abbreviated as Diànyīn (电音), literally means ‘electronic music’ and is used as a catch-all term for any music made using electronic instruments or involving electronic processing.
EDM is translated as Diànzǐ wǔqǔ (电子舞曲) (‘Electronic Dance Music’), and also refers to commercial dance music. House is generally translated as Hàoshì yīnyuè (浩室音乐), techno as Tiěkènuò yīnyuè (铁克诺音乐), and trance as Chūshén yīnyuè (出神音乐).
Rewind: A Very Short History of Electronic Music in China
The history of electronic dance music in China brings us back to the early 1980s. In the decades and years before, there was strict music censorship under Mao’s rule and the influx of Western music was limited. After Mao’s death and the start of the Open Door policy, modern music from outside of mainland China became increasingly popular among young Chinese, inspiring local musicians to start writing and recording their own pop, rock, and modern music (Holm 1983; Latham 2007: 336).
China’s ‘New Wave’ movement was partly triggered by ‘The Concerts in China‘ by the French electronic music pioneer Jean Michel Jarre in 1981, who performed in Beijing and Shanghai in October-November of that year for a combined audience of 150,000 people (Billboard 1982).
Following the Jarre concerts, the New Wave movement also became visible at conservatories and music schools across China in the early 1980s when Chinese composers started to experiment with electronic music. While influenced by Western music, many examples of Chinese electronic music created in these years featured Chinese traditional musical elements (Li 2018).
Many Chinese people became more familiar with modern Western music in the 1980s and 1990s through cassette tapes that were shared and copied hundreds of times, and the so-called dakou culture which emerged in the mid-90s.
Dakou (打口) CDs were dumped by Western countries and imported into China as plastic garbage, intended to be recycled, but then flowed into Chinese cities and became available for listeners to buy from black markets.
Dakou CDs (and tapes) have a cut-out, a punch hole, or crack in them to mark them as waste and prevent them from being resold, but people were still able to restore them and listen to most of the music. The dakou culture greatly influenced China’s music scene.1
Proper nightclubs first started to open up in big Chinese cities in the early 1990s, a time in which many people in the electronic music scene were more focused on the music rather than the money.
This is also when Ben Huang, who would become one of China’s most well-known DJs, started his career. The Shanghai-born Huang was a student of modern dance and fine arts before he became active in the Beijing music scene and kick-started China’s club culture.
Other big names emerging around this time are the so-called “godfather of Chinese dance music” Mickey Zhang, DJ Youdai (Zhang Youdai), Yang Bing, and famous electronic musician Weng Weng. They later also started organizing dance parties or setting up their own labels.
Although illegal rave parties emerged in various cities across the country since the mid-90s, China’s first big rave party took place in the late 1990s at the Great Wall, organized by the Swiss collective ‘Cheese’ (Grefer 2016; Yiu & Charrieras 2021: 233). Vice China (2019) writes:
“What was most magical about China’s party culture in the 1990s, is that it miraculously united all participants of any subculture. The people coming to these rave parties could come from completely different communities, from doctors to lawyers, from hoodlums to diplomats, local punks and sightseeing exchange students (..), on the dance floor surrounded by electronic music, nobody would talk about ideals and doctrines, actions and problems, everyone put all their conflicts aside and danced.”
Nevertheless, much of the scene remained underground and many people in China had not been exposed to electronic dance music yet or did not understand it.
When the renowned British-Canadian electronic musician Richie Hawtin performed in Shanghai at some of the city’s earliest techno events in the 1990s, some people wondered if the CD was stuck and if the mixer needed to be fixed.2
The Mainstream Scene: “Tuhai” and Rock Music Envy
Starting in the 2000s, more money-driven clubs started to open and the electronic dance music scene in China started to develop into two separate worlds; the underground with its underground scene and the mainstream with its mainstream scene.
“And there I am in the middle,” DJ Ben Huang said in a 2009 interview.
Huang’s comment is telling for a market where electronic music has become the second most popular music genre, while the ‘real’ Chinese fans of electronic dance still complain that there has been too little progress in the scene in recent years.
Online discussions indicate that many think that electronic dance music in China has become too commercialized too quickly and has become all about the money rather than the music – leaving little space for the underground scene to flourish, and lacking breeding ground to boost a stronger development of the local electronic music scene.
In 2016, Jiangsu television aired China’s first-ever variety show featuring Electronic Dance Music (EDM) titled Heroes of Remix (盖世英雄remix). The show introduced international electronic dance music genres to a mainstream audience, mixing it with Chinese traditional influences. Two years later, the talent reality show Rave Now (即刻电音) premiered on Tencent Video, further promoting the popularity of EDM in China.
Against the backdrop of an ever-growing EDM industry in China with numerous nightclubs opening up all over the country, the release of the 2021 movie Upcoming Summer (盛夏未来), which focuses on electronic music, further assimilated dance music into China’s mainstream pop culture. A hashtag dedicated to the movie on Chinese social media received over 650 million views (#电影盛夏未来#). (Note: the movie can now also be viewed through Netflix.)
While electronic music is divided into many genres, commercial EDM is by far the most popular type of electronic music in China. Some of the music played by Chinese local DJs that is deemed to be of lower quality than ‘legitimate’ EDM is also called ‘Tuhai’ (土嗨), a wordplay on ‘too high’ that refers to unoriginal bounce music with whistles and repetitive melodies.
The more the popularity of electric dance music is growing among the masses, the more music fans speak out, saying that China’s mainstream electronic music does not represent authentic electronic dance music, even arguing it that it negatively influences the development of the entire genre; excessive commercialization has neglected the music itself.
The recent surge of Tuhai in Chinese clubs is also a side-effect of the pandemic, during which clubs have started booking far more local DJs with little experience to keep the shows going. To counter the so-called ‘Tuhai virus’, China’s top DJ Carta launched the ‘Chinese Bounce Mafia’ alias together with trance DJ Luminn and DJ/producer Unity to mock the repetitive music genre.
In an interview with MixMag (Wycech 2020), Carta says:
“We started Chinese Bounce Mafia after seeing the number of shows these guys were doing and what was happening to the market. We all hated the music, so we said ‘fuck these guys, if they can get all these shows, so can we’. So Chinese Bounce Mafia is our stand against what we see as a problem within the market. The name is a troll because people thought we’ve all sold out and given into bounce but we actually play anything from house to trance to big room to techno.”
It is not easy to counter the Tuhai trend, which is not just ubiquitous in China’s clubs but is also everywhere in the Chinese online music environment, triggering online discussions on how the low-standard music is negatively impacting the overall music quality in the online libraries of platforms such as QQ Music, Kugou, and Tencent Music.
Some Chinese electronic music fans even say they envy China’s rock music scene. One article by the Music Economy Official Weibo Account (@音乐财经官方微博) on Sina said:
“As a fan of electronic music, I feel envious [of the rock music scene]. I envy their music festivals, I envy their good musicians, I envy their good fans, and this isn’t the first time for me to admire China’s rock scene in this way.”
The Music Economy author argues that although it’s been a bumpy ride for rock music in China, the genre has come a long way over the past four decades and has since been embraced by the general public.
One of the reasons why the author argues that China’s dance music community has reason to envy the rock music scene is that there is an alleged pure love for music that draws people into the rock scene, while many people coming to the DJ culture enter the market for the money, not for the music. Because people are prioritizing money over music, too many compromises are often made, resulting in low-effort productions or mediocre festivals.
Another difference between China’s dance and DJ culture compared to the rock scene, is that many rock music fans have grown up listening to the music and have followed their favorite musicians for years. China does not (yet) have a greater electronic music history to build on.
The author writes:
“I know it’s not very scientific to compare rock to electronic music, but they are both imported products and when I see how rock is finally flourishing after having been through so much, I can’t help feeling envious. Electronic dance music and electronic music in China still need to build on more experience. I hope more musicians can stop worrying about income and focus on the music, following their own dreams. I also hope more people will really start caring about electronic music and dance, and that they will start spending money on tickets and records to support their organizers and favorite musicians.”
What also plays a role in this, is that DJ culture mostly takes place inside nightclubs and entertainment venues, where drinks and socializing are often considered more important by Chinese clubgoers than whoever is standing behind the DJ table. China’s current commercial club culture is not a fruitful breeding ground for the further development of China’s electronic dance music scene, the author claims.
Underground & Online Electronic Dance in Post-Covid China
Despite all negative consequences of Covid19 for the music industry, the pandemic has also had an unexpected positive influence on China’s dance culture. With no international DJs allowed to travel into China, local DJ talents are getting increased recognition and there is more interest in the domestic dance scene.
As clubs were shutting down across the world in the spring of 2020, China entered its post-lockdown phase and nightclubs came back to life, with more people ready to explore the club scene.
Despite those voices expressing concern about the lower-quality EDM that is dominating China’s club scene, there are also those who think it is not necessarily bad for electronic dance to go mainstream this way because it also indirectly creates more acceptance for non-mainstream sub-genres and electronic music at large.
In recent years, new underground nightclubs, festivals and independent labels have mushroomed in China. There is now a flourishing club music scene in various cities across the country: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Kunming, and Guangzhou have all played a pivotal role in the development of China’s electro dance music culture, with Chengdu leading the way (Neocha 2021).
Among Chengdu’s many electronic music clubs, there’s .TAG (‘To Another Galaxy’). The club, located on the 21st floor of Chengdu’s Poly Centre, was founded by a small group of Chinese and Dutch music lovers and entrepreneurs, taking inspiration from clubs in Amsterdam and Berlin. TAG has become a city hotspot for underground house and techno, with local DJs such as Cora and HAO attracting a young and free-spirited clubbing crowd.
TAG was founded in 2013, the same year in which renowned record label SVBKVLT was established in Shanghai. SVBKVLT has pushed works from many local talents, including the Beijing-based electronic music duo Zaliva-D and Shanghai producer and artist 33EMYBW (Wu Shanmin).
Chengdu’s .TAG and Shanghai’s SVBKVLT are just some examples of China’s thriving underground scene, as there are many other important players, including Beijing’s underground techno club Zhao Dai, Shanghai’s 3NTRY, club Elevator and ALL, or OIL in Shenzhen, featuring Chinese DJs and electronic music artists such as Slowcook, Yang Yang, Temple Rat, Knopha, Chuan, Max Shen, Luna Li, and many, many more.
China’s electro music culture goes beyond clubs and festivals – the online environment is a big part of it. Although the 2021 shutdown of the Xiami Music app from the Chinese market created a vacuum for online electronic music streaming, other online music libraries such as QQ Music, Netease Cloud Music, Kuwo and Kugou are now competing over listeners.
On social media platforms Weibo and Wechat, there are various electronic music blogging accounts with thousands of followers but there are also hundreds of festival accounts, club accounts, label accounts, and DJ/creator accounts.
More in-depth discussions on China’s electronic music scene can also be found on Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu.com, the social networking sites QQ and Douban, and on Bilibili. Over the past few years, other smaller online communities, from Moresound to Abletive, have also arrived at the scene for people to discuss the development of Chinese dance music.
Although many online discussions about the state of China’s electronic dance music scene are quite critical of how the scene is evolving, it could still be seen as a sign of how the industry and its audience are maturing – growth comes with growing pains.
Despite all hurdles, new China-based talents are gaining traction and electronic music labels are popping up one after another. Covid has posed a major challenge to the scene but has also injected new energy into the domestic market.
Electronic music in China has come a long way since Jean Michel Jarre first made waves in the country, and after all these years, the genre is entering a new era. The next few years will show which direction Chinese electronic music is moving in, but one thing is certain: electronic music is part of China’s music scene today and, whether or not everyone agrees on the quality of the beats that are booming, the music is here to stay.
On one online discussion page about Chinese electronic music, someone asked how others feel about Chinese DJ PantaQ arriving in the DJMag Top 100 DJ list. One commenter answered: “This is only the beginning. Chinese electronic music will start to shine on the international stage.”
1 Professor Jeroen de Kloet did extensive research into China’s dakou culture. For more on China’s dakou generation, we recommend reading: Jeroen de Kloet, China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010).
2 This scene was described by Chinese DJ / producer Ma Haiing (MHP) in the book by Matthew Collin, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music (London: Profile Books, 2018), Chapter 6.
– Androids. 2017. “An Idiot’s Guide to EDM Genres.” Complex.com, October 13: https://www.complex.com/music/an-idiots-guide-to-edm-genres/ [Oct 11, 2021].
– Billboard. 1982. “Jarre Fame Spreads – Even to China.” Billboard Magazine (March 13): page 22.
– Collin, Matthew. 2018. Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music, London: Profile Books.
– De Boni, Luka. 2018. “The Rise of China’s Electronic Dance Music Scene: From Underground Culture to Online Communities.” What’s on Weibo, August 26
https://www.whatsonweibo.com/the-rise-of-chinas-electronic-dance-music-scene-from-underground-culture-to-online-communities/ [Nov 1, 2021].
– De Kloet, Jeroen. 2010. China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
– Grefer, Philipp. 2016. “Disco(s), Techno and the EDM Storm: A Brief (and Personal) History of Electronic Music in China.” The Beijinger, Nov 16 https://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2016/11/04/discos-techno-and-edm-storm-brief-and-personal-history-electronic-music-china [Nov 12, 2021].
– Holm, David. 1983. “The Difficulty of ‘Walking on Two Legs.’” Index on Censorship: 12 (1): 34-37.
– Jori, Anita. 2021 “The Meanings of ‘electronic dance music’ and EDM.” In: The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music , edited by Ewa Mazierska, Tony Rigg and Les Gillon, Chapter 1. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
– Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. California: ABC-CLIO.
– Li, Qiuxiao. 2018. “Characteristics of Early Electronic Music Composition in China’s Mainland,” Contemporary Music Review 37:1-2.
– Magnetic. 2021. “STOP CALLING EDM EDM – HERE IS A PROPER DEFINITION.” Magnetic Magazine, Jan 13 https://www.magneticmag.com/2015/10/stop-calling-edm-edm-here-is-a-proper-definition/ [Oct 12, 2021].
– Music Economy Official Weibo Account 音乐财经官方微博.2020. “电音圈有什么资格羡慕滚圈.” Sina News, August 20 https://k.sina.com.cn/article_5255791141_13945022501900poao.html [Nov 27, 2021].
– Neocha. 2021. “Sleepless in Chengdu.” July 5, https://neocha.com/magazine/sleepless-in-chengdu/ [Nov 27, 2021].
– Yiu, Alex and Damien Charrieras. 2021. “On the Fence: Electronic Dance Music Cultures in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.” In: Sébastien Darchen, Damien Charrieras, John Willsteed (eds), Electronic Cities – Music, Policies and Space in the 21st Century, 223-243. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.
– Vice China. 2019. “触电中国 EP1：从荷东到锐舞，中国电音的起源与脉络.” Tencent News, July 30 https://new.qq.com/omn/20190730/20190730A0CTCB00.html?pc [Oct 12, 2021].
– Wycech, Olivia. 2020. “An Edm Club In Taipei Has Unabashedly Banned Bounce Music…But What Even Is Bounce Music?” MixMag, October 20 https://mixmag.asia/feature/what-is-chinese-bounce-music [Nov 17, 2021].
Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.
This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.
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