The Role of Science in Society: The Chinese Social Credit System

The Role of Science in Society: The Chinese Social Credit System

Carola López

Since 2014, a particular social credit system – or SCS – has been under development, and promoted by the Chinese government. The system, which augurs mandatory participation, is based on a data crossing behavioral scoring network, leading to individual punishments and rewards. Since its introduction, the SCS has been received apprehensively. Many highlight the dangers of research and development policies centered on an instrumental view of science, which conceals government surveillance limiting individual rights and freedoms.


There are multiple views on what the role of science in society should be. John Ziman (2003) in his article Science and Civil Society defines science as ubiquitous. That is, it is present in all social spheres. Many times, it is this omnipresence that causes mixed opinions regarding its uses and abuses. In the author’s words, “there are cases in which science promises salvation from evils, and others, as in the case of a nuclear warhead, in which it appears as an instrument of political power; although it can also, like verification technology, present itself as a peaceful answer to such nonsense. At times it is shown as a kind reason, at others as a mysterious incantation”.

According to Ziman, each social system assigns science a certain role and functions within it. However, the author observes a primacy of instrumental views of science over non-instrumental ones (i.e., science as a means to develop instruments for political, social, and economic use). Nowadays, this vision continues to be highly preponderant.

Regarding policy making in science and technology, Elzinga and Jamison (1996) in their article The Change of Political Agendas in Science and Technology offer a possibility of interpreting the forces that interact in the development of this type of policies, using a four-culture format. These are:

  • the bureaucratic culture, centered on State administration and concerned about the effective coordination, planning and organization of public policy.
  • the academic, founded on the scientists themselves, is more interested in a policy for science and in preserving what are perceived as “academic values” such as autonomy, integrity, objectivity, and control.
  • the economic, aligned to the private sector, focuses its attention on the technological uses of science; presenting a business ethos that seeks to transform scientific results into successful innovations.
  • the civic culture, founded on social and popular movements, addresses the social consequences and implications of science rather than its production and application.

It is interesting to see what the authors detail about civic culture stating that, “while dominant cultures tend to orient scientific and technological policy in a “technocratic” direction, civic culture represents what has been called a “democratic strategy” for the Science and Technology (S&T) policy”. In other words, the influence of civic culture depends on the strength of the society. Therefore, its role is fundamental since it acts as a form of accountability toward other cultures.


As stated earlier, the SCS is a crossing data system that evaluates individual behaviors and scores them. This qualification leads to rewarding -what is understood as – “good” behavior and punishing the “bad”. The SCS was sanctioned and approved in 2014 by the Chinese State Council and formally named: Planning Project for the Development of a Social Credit System. Currently, pilot tests are active in different cities in China, such as Zhengzhou, Wuhan, and Rongcheng. The official objectives outlined by the SCS focus on combating insecurity, increasing levels of transparency – both at an individual and business level-, and improving the economic management of citizens by promoting institutionalized banking.

When implemented, all citizens would receive an initial thousand points and, based on their actions and behaviors, they would add or subtract them. Subtraction happens in cases of criminal activity, debt status, and consumption habits. For example, buying alcoholic beverages and tobacco in excess. On the other hand, points are added if citizens contribute to charitable causes, do not have debts, and demonstrate good behavior in public spaces.

Since its announcement, the SCS has been under criticism -mainly from Western societies- arguing the existence of a latent objective within this policy, namely high levels of control and surveillance of citizens. Mostly because data not only intersects at the interstate level but with companies based within China as well. This adds to already implemented policies, such as the new security law in Hong Kong.

By implementing Elzinga and Jamison’s analysis of the four cultures in the SCS, a very strong bureaucratic culture that is highly intertwined with the economic variant emerges. China is a country that for decades has firmly developed a long-term national science policy – for the most part, subordinately to the state.

In the case of the SCS, both cultures, bureaucratic and economic, would benefit since the system generates reciprocity. It improves social behavior as understood by the government and encourages the consumption of goods to maintain a ‘good’ reputation. Regarding the academic culture, little has been disclosed about the position of this sector. It is worth clarifying that academic culture tends to be subordinated to state financing. Therefore, SCS can be limited in its ability to fight for the academic values ​​of autonomy, integrity, objectivity, and control.

Finally, there is the civic culture. As stated prior, it often serves as accountability for others, ensuring a moderate application of scientific policies and not to the detriment of society itself. In the case analyzed, no social demonstrations against the implementation of the SCS have been observed. Although, based on interviews and testimonies from various documentaries, a position of acceptance or resignation is observed by not being able to change or question the measures adopted by the government. However, the fact that hitherto only pilot tests have been carried out and a national application of SCS is still pending makes it pre-emptive to gauge the full extent of the society’s reaction. 

Source: Time

The Chinese case is paradoxical when applying the cultures established by Elzinga and Jaimson. In a political system as particular as this one, it could be thought that the preponderant role of one culture over the others -in this case, the bureaucratic one- “cancels” or leads to a zero-sum game where the promotion of scientific policies cannot be carried out in an efficient way. However, the development of a long-term science policy and the consequent technological advance in China has only advanced.

On the one hand, the Chinese social credit system can be thought of as a version, feared by Ziman, of utilitarian technoscience that takes advantage of advances in surveillance technology to control the population by encouraging certain behaviors, punishing others, and building a moral regime that assigns science a unique and instrumental role.

If the SCS was to be implemented at the national level, it would undoubtedly mark the materialization in public policy of a surveillance system highly nucleated by the state. However, on the other hand, the cross-linking of data for similar purposes is already present in most countries. For instance, the credit system in the United States which allows access to the purchase or rental of homes and cars depending on the citizen’s score.

There are ongoing debates around the world on how -or if- governments should regulate online spaces since they are no longer seen as the exception but as the norm. Numerous times -and as the pandemic has reiterated – social relations, economic transactions, spaces for debate, and even the education of entire generations take place online.

The case study discussed in this analysis can be helpful to the current debates in steering the defining of a future relationship between science and society. Ziman’s vision remains valid as he claims, “we should not identify (science) with utilitarian technoscience but ensure its freedom to perform the equally essential non-instrumental functions that sustain and enrich our much-appreciated pluralist democracy”. It could be said then that a possible answer to the problem of the primacy of technocracy -and taking up the concepts of Elzinga and Jamison- is a strong civic culture that serves as a counterweight to scientific policies.

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by Carola López time to read: 6 min