social credit meme john xina
That's not how social credit works in China. Photo illustration: Viola Zhou

People Don’t Understand China’s Social Credit, and These Memes Are Proof

No one in China is losing “social credit points” for talking about Tiananmen Square.

Denying the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown ever happened earns you 15 points in social credit. Playing no more than two hours of video games per week gives you 20 extra points. But calling Taiwan a country? That’ll cost you 30,000,000 points.

This is what happens in China, according to popular memes about the country’s social credit system that poke fun at the Communist Party’s supposed ideology control, saying people lose “social credit” points for failing to toe the party line.


There is just one thing: What’s portrayed in the memes is not what China’s social credit system is about—at all.

“It’s pretty funny, but it’s not very accurate,” says Kendra Schaefer, a partner at Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China, who has been tracking the development of the social credit system. “It reflects the very common misperceptions about the social credit system, that everybody in China has got a social credit score. And if your score goes down or it falls below a certain level, you are going to be blacklisted, and you are going to be dragged off to the gulag or something like that.” 

According to online posts cited by Know Your Meme, the “+15 social credit” image was circulating in Russia in early 2021 before the concept gained traction on Instagram, Reddit, and YouTube this summer. Recent creations often feature images of John Cena, sarcastically spelled as John Xina—a supposed play on the last name of Chinese leader Xi Jinping—who once apologized in Mandarin for calling Taiwan a country. Videos created around the theme have together gathered millions of views on the social sites. The meme’s fans also respond to online criticisms of China with jokes like “-9999 social credit.”


While the Chinese government has indeed imposed various controls on civil liberties, the social credit system is not playing a prominent role in this area. The memes’ popularity reflects widespread discontent toward the Chinese government over its restrictions of people’s freedoms, and also a misplaced fear of humans’ dystopian future under high-tech governance.

The social credit system is one of the most misunderstood things about China. After the country’s cabinet announced in 2014 its plans to build a social credit system, media reports have predicted a dystopian, Orwellian, Black Mirror-like world where the government uses futuristic technology to track and analyze citizens’ behaviors and rate them according to their political loyalty.

But years into the development of the social credit program, the system has turned out to be something far more complicated. Instead of being a citizen-scoring system, social credit in China now refers to a fragmented set of programs used to enforce regulations, punish court judgement defaulters, and promote what authorities deem moral integrity among citizens. 

The primary function of the social credit system is to ensure regulatory compliance of companies and business executives. Authorities have launched platforms for the public to check companies’ “social credit” records, which contain their history of regulatory approvals and punishments, to help people determine if a particular business can be trusted or not. 


Under the “social credit” program, the leadership is also promoting data sharing among different government agencies. The idea is businesses or individuals that commit certain offenses may face penalties in other policy areas, such as being banned from bidding for government contracts or assuming public office. But the concept currently only applies to a few offenses, including illegal fundraising, operating overloaded trucks, and failing to pay migrant workers on time. 

A separate scheme under the social credit initiative targets people who fail to comply with court judgements. These defaulters are banned from high-spending activities, such as taking plane rides and sending their children to expensive private schools. China’s supreme court said in March the extra restrictions had prompted some 7.5 million people into honoring court orders. 

Another part of the system focuses on financial credit, which works similarly as financial credit reports in other countries and can impact individuals’ or companies’ loan applications. 

Most initiatives under the social credit system do not involve actual scores, the exception being the “trustworthiness score” programs launched by some cities and communities. With names like “osmanthus score,” “jasmine score,” and “seashell score,” these programs are mostly designed to promote so-called good deeds. In Rongcheng, a city that made international headlines as a social credit laboratory, citizens get 1,000 points to begin with. They can lose points over offenses such as tax-evasion, and can earn points by doing volunteer work, donating money, or simply handing in cash they happen to find on the street. Other places have also allowed people to earn points by cleaning up public spaces or taking care of the elderly. 


These systems are partly the source of some myths about the social credit system, including a widely-shared graphic that depicts a point-based digital control system used to police citizens in every sphere of society. 

But in reality, not many people care about these scores, since participation is voluntary and having a low score in itself does not bring any major negative consequences, according to researchers. Authorities have offered rewards such as discounts at tourist attractions and deposit waivers at public libraries to those with high scores. In some places, the scores can be used to redeem detergent, toothpaste, and toilet paper rolls. But the rewards are too trivial to prompt much fanfare. 

There’s the long-standing techno-orientalism in Euro-American popular culture, where Asia is imagined as futuristic and technologically advanced.

Chenchen Zhang, a political scientist at Queen’s University Belfast who has studied China’s social credit system, said the social credit meme, which falsely uses social credit as a shorthand for all sorts of control, shows the difference in the perception of China between people inside and outside of the country is further widening. 

“There’s the long-standing techno-orientalism in Euro-American popular culture, where Asia is imagined as futuristic and technologically advanced,” Zhang said. “Then China being the authoritarian other of Western liberal democracy and at the same time a rising tech superpower fits perfectly with the image that there’s a tech driven, all-encompassing scoring system to control every individual citizen in the country.”


Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow of the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, said at a July discussion on China’s social credit system organized by The Diplomat that the myths became popular because they resonated with a global fear of increasing surveillance by governments and companies. 

“Information technology is new. Our societies aren’t really ready for it,” Daum said. “I think one of the things we’ve done is we hold up China or a largely imagined China as a sort of worst-case scenario to either use as an example of what we should be working to prevent, or to take some sort of cold comfort from it being worse somewhere than it is wherever you might be.” 

Experts have warned against the potential corruption and data abuse that could happen within China’s evolving social credit system. “While we have no evidence it’s really being negatively or inappropriately used right now, the underlying data collection and the creation of these kinds of very comprehensive files, especially at the city level on individual citizens, has the potential to be problematic down the road,” said Schaefer, with Trivium China.

But at least for now, the type of ideology control depicted in the popular memes takes place outside of the actual social credit system in China. 

Internet users could have their social media accounts shut down for commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, where Chinese soldiers killed an estimated hundreds of civilians in central Beijing, or for posting images of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Celebrities could have their online presence wiped out if they are accused of being unpatriotic. Fear of government punishments has led to pervasive self-censorship on the Chinese internet. 

But no one is losing 9,000 social credit points in the process.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.