Mobilizing Social Anomie to Strengthen the State: The Social Credit System and China‚Äôs Struggle for Social Order › view all

Lecture by Prof. Dr. H. Christoph Steinhardt

February 01, 2023 - 14:15-15:45
Unicom, 7.1020
House 7
Series: Social Sciences Lecture Series
Event type: public

Social Science Lecture Series (CRC) with Prof. Dr. H. Christoph Steinhardt (University of Vienna) on "Mobilizing Social Anomie to Strengthen the State: The Social Credit System and China’s Struggle for Social Order".


States seek to expand their infrastructural power over society through surveillance. Citizens have an interest in protecting their privacy, but they also they also desire security. States therefore draw on narratives of threats from violent crime, terrorism, migration or disease to rationalize surveillance programmes. In this talk, I examine how the Chinese state communicates about the Social Credit System (SCS)—a vast information collection and behaviour steering scheme covering all individuals and organizations—on the social media platform Sina Weibo.

I identify a dominant social anomie narrative that is most actively promoted by state-affiliated accounts and is most prone to generate user attention. It portrays the SCS as an effective solution for allegedly pervasive problems of social disorder. By punishing minor legal and norm transgressions, the SCS is depicted as a civilizing force that helps protect society from itself. Drilling into the most attention-generating posts, I discern how state-affiliated accounts piggy-bag on high-profile incidents to associate the SCS with norm-breaking phenomena that have high popular salience. Potential counter-discourses of state control and privacy are scarce, censored when they generate traction, and often out of sync with the empirical reality of the SCS.

This indicates that the Chinese state enjoyed notable success in mobilizing problems of social anomie, which are rooted in problems of governance, for deepening its penetration into society. The Social Credit System is part of a wider “civilizing” endeavour with which the Chinese Communist Party is trying to strengthen its moral legitimacy, by addressing long standing popular concerns over anti-social behaviour.


H. Christoph Steinhardt is associate professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Vienna. His research focuses on state-society relations in China, covering popular protest, information, social trust, civil society and public opinion. He is principal investigator of a project on the Social Credit System funded by the European Research Council, in which he studies the popular perception of social credit and privacy, state justification strategies as well as the wider population of Chinese social engineering programmes.