China is a Mirror

Kevin Werbach
3 min readAug 15, 2021

The latest case against Xi Jinping’s China comes from legendary investor and philanthropist George Soros in the Wall Street Journal. He makes a strong argument against the authoritarian, cult of personality state that is now being reasserted in China. Soros speaks from deep experience, in China as well as in fighting for free expression in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The problems he identifies with China’s top-down development model are real. However, we cannot simply assume that the open society will triumph.

The 21st century calls on us to transform society to address global challenges such as climate change, the fourth industrial revolution, and a trustworthy digital information ecosystem, all in an interconnected world. We need each other. Rising to the deep challenge that China poses means understanding and appreciating what China does effectively, sometimes better than liberal democracies today, while being clear-eyed about the flaws.

I push back on those who assume an authoritarian society is destined to give way to capitalist democracy, as well as those who assume the facade of democracy gives way to cryptocurrency-mediated sovereign individuals. By all means, fight for the future we want. That is crucially different from knowing the battle is won; it’s just a matter of time. All three tribes — cyber-authoritarians, cyber-liberals, and cyber-libertarians — sometimes fall into that determinist fallacy.

China is the mirror we must look in to understand the next-generation digital world we are building.

China’s Social Credit System is the premier model today of autonomic regulation and data-driven social coordination. For better and worse. Criticize it all you want. But understand, as I try to explain in a new law review article, both why it’s so appealing to the Chinese leadership, and why it seems so appealing to much of the Chinese population. Make the argument why the proto-Social Credit systems of U.S.-based private digital platforms and public institutions in areas such as criminal justice are better, or will become better. We need the arguments. Not just to debate China, but to debate our own future.

Those cheering the rise of a cryptocurrency and AI metaverse built around intelligent software and immutable code need to recognize the similarities to Xi Jinping’s vision of the “autonomic” state. Yes, decentralization. Yes, the ethos of Bitcoin and crypto is to replace the state. But once you start handing out rings of power, you just might want to consider that there could be one ring to rule them all.

Some figures in the crypto community appreciate that good outcomes are not foreordained. For a recent example, listen to this Epicenter podcast with Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin. He’s all in on crypto. Yet he gets that social good must be fought for. Cryptocurrencies and blockchains allow us to experiment in a possibility space for digital governance, economic activity, and social organization. It’s exciting and refreshing. Yet the outcome isn’t a given. That’s sort of the point of experiments.

America is — still — an experiment. So is pan-European social democracy. So is the People’s Republic of China. So are Bitcoin and Ethereum, and their progeny.

We need experiments to meet the challenges of the present, and the future. Let us not forget that what makes the scientific method is falsifiability: experiments can fail. We have a wealth of tools at our disposal to learn from prior experiments, and evaluate our current ones. We best use them.



Kevin Werbach

Wharton prof, tech policy maven, digital connector, pesctarian, feminist. Co-author, For the Win; author, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust.