Understanding the Great Other

Law, Religion, and the Internet With China Scholar Rogier Creemers

Rogier Creemers © André Hengst

Rogier Creemers © André Hengst

The outspoken scholar Rogier Creemers has been a guest of the Sinica Podcast on the social credit system that was recorded live on October 31 2018 at the Asia Society Switzerland. With an obvious thirst for understanding everything and a humble claim for his work's reach – especially because of knowing so much – a conversation with Rogier is as entertaining as insightful. Behind the Scenes we have been talking with him about the perks of looking at China through the lens of law, about the common features of the imperial and the communist China, and about the difficulties one faces being nuanced in talking about China in particular.


Serena Jung: Rogier, you started out studying sinology and international relations – how come you ended up in law?

Rogier Creemers: I did sinology because I was really interested in ancient, classical China – poetry, language, literature. When I went to study in Beijing for a year, I discovered that the China of today is at least as interesting as the China of yesterday. We actually did not get a lot of proper modern China content in the course that I did, back in the early 2000s. That is why I did the international relations degree. It turns out that this combination wasn’t the easiest profile to get a job with at that particular point in time. So, I started to teach Chinese giving evening classes and one of my students was a professor at the Maastricht University law faculty. He decided that there was more in me than just Chinese language and evening classes and ended up offering me a job. That is where I did my PhD on intellectual property law and world trade law in China. 

That cannot be all though! What insights into China does law provide that other approaches do not?

Of course, I would never want to do something that I didn’t think was valuable. When one talks about politics, particularly in China, one almost by necessity talks about a number of things that are quite fluffy: «What does China want?», «What do Chinese leaders think?» In contrast the law is very concrete, it’s tangible. If one wants to know «How China works», one good place to start is: How does it build rules? How does it try to establish mechanisms that the leadership hopes will work locally, centrally, in all these different polities. And it gives you something to go on. Simply by taking a look at the documents you can get much more of an insight into the actual day-to-day complexities, the trade-offs and the choices that are being made in order to achieve particular aims.

You also translate different kind of documents from Chinese into English. How big a part is that of your work?

It’s an important part. When you are a European researcher and you go to China, your time on the ground is very limited. Your ability to interact with people is very limited therefore. So, you end up in a situation where the documentary research really becomes a main part of what you do. And even if the entire story cannot be derived from the documents, a big part of it can. It also means that you do get to spend time in China being able to have a targeted conversation rather than just having to figure out the basics at that time.

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In your research on contemporary China you factor in historical and philosophical background – the studies you did before turning to law. You take close looks at everything. Do you get surprised often in your research, comparing these different moments in history and systems?

I have the unfortunate characteristic of being deeply cynical. So, there is actually very little that surprises me [laughs]. But there is a lot that interests me. Some things you only get to write when you are past 60, when you have been doing these things for decades. And one book that I would want to write then is one that really starts teasing out the continuities in legal history, legal thinking, political thinking. When you do a law degree in the Netherlands, you have legal history and a narrative that starts with Roman law and continues to the present . I worked in Britain when Brexit and its litigation were happening: This is a court case happening in 2017 that cites 17th century law. We like to see the Communist Party of China as a revolutionary movement, a movement that did away with the past, and a lot of the official rhetoric is about that: the Chinese Communist Party brought a new era. But I sort of have a hunch that when you look at many of the structural elements of Chinese communist governments, they resonate suspiciously well with elements of imperial governments. There is, I think, a heritage, that the communist party actively uses, creatively. And that we are, as modern China scholars, very often unable to critically understand, because our command of the heritage is not sufficient. 

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What are these structural elements that you see both in ancient and modern China?

Most of our scholarly ideas about the role of the state and law regulation come from a European tradition where the modern state was born within a particular context. And one of the contextual elements here was that we had separate religion – and we had separate religion for a rather long time. That meant that the states never had absolute power over all realms of human life because there was religious authority as well that it had to content with in a way that the Chinese did not. Not to say that there was no religion in China, but there was no organized religion in any way compared to the Catholic Church in terms of its depth and its claim to moral authority – and also its claim to power over rulers. We also see that China was an administrative state, not a parliamentary state as we saw developing as Britain in the late Middle Ages or in France or Switzerland. Those are differences that, I think, still influence very deeply how the Chinese Communist Party approaches state craft today. 

You are currently moving more in the direction of digital technology and cybersecurity. Is there something you are looking for in these fields? 

Well, I started out with intellectual property law in China, focusing on copyright and therefor on movie piracy. One of my main conclusions was that this was not an intellectual property law problem, but a media regulation problem, simply because lot of things were and still are not legally available in China in the first place. In the early 2010s at Oxford I discovered that you cannot really do media regulation without focusing on the internet. Because the internet in China is becoming much more than media alone to the point that traditional questions of internet studies and online censorship are becoming a much smaller part in a much wider field that encompasses everything from e-commerce to social control as in the social credit system to national security issues and so on and so forth.

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So your studies grow along with the very fast changing of Chinese internet landscape.

And in a way that is really frustrating: Once upon a time – and that is actually not that long ago – you could make a claim to have a relatively decent understanding of Chinese law and regulation with regards to digital technology. Those days are over. It is exploding. One problem that you have when you study digital technology is you need to understand the policy. In order to understand the policy, you need to understand the language: there is a lot of new terminology in there. Which means that you need to understand the technology. China is responding both, to a lot of things that are happening in the EU around data protection, and certainly to the United States. So, you need to understand what is happening there as well. The legwork that you need to do just to keep up with all the developments is massively exploding.

Considering also that laws react to changes in technology relatively slow.

Well, we are getting somewhere, certainly in Europe in terms of data protection. There is a lot of things that one could say about the GDPR but the European Union is actively out there dealing with the challenges that digital technology presents. In many ways the U.S. is even slower. And you could say a lot about exactly how the Chinese government has gone about dealing with the internet – I certainly do – but the fact is and remains: they were first to recognize it for what it was, in ways that we are just catching up with.

Which is using it as a tool for reaching their interests?

Well, of course! The point with technology is, we want to have a simple story and our story for a very long time was: Technology is great! Technology is going to unify the world… yadda, yadda, yadda. Like I said I am a deeply cynical person. So, the way I see it is: «Oh, technology is going to enable all kinds of citizen journalism!» – like Breitbart –; «It is going to enable all kinds of new forms of social interaction!» – like online bullying and troll mobs –; «It is going to enable all forms of political activism!» – like ISIS. Because, that is what happens. For all of its flaws the Chinese government never had that naïve understanding. They understood very early on that whatever good these digital technologies bring there is potential harm. 

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One thing we have experienced while researching the social credit system: We found ourselves trying to balance explaining the phenomenon – as far as this is possible at this point in time – and pointing out that there are a lot of misconceptions about the issue. But, there was so much negative news about it, that explaining it looked sometimes like defending it – which certainly was not the intention. Is this just part of the job when working on China in particular?

Yes, and part of that problem is that China in many ways is the great other – with a capital O – in the sense that China is the country that we do not understand. It is one of the countries that the west never colonized. And there are very few of them. It is the major communist country that not only survived the Cold War but seems to thrive in defiance of everything we thought to be true about political systems and political stability. And it is increasingly seen as an adversary. 

Also, part of the problem is that it is easy to get a free pass to be hostile towards China to the point of being speculative. The moment that you move away from that position it is very easy to be tarred as a «Shill» or a «Panda-Hugger» or a naïve useful idiot to the Chinese Communist Party. If you cannot stand that heat as a China scholar do not get into that kitchen. 

My basic approach is the following: I am not an activist in the sense that I feel extremely hesitant in taking a strong stance about what should happen to the Chinese government. A major reason for that is that it is not my skin in the game. I am a tenured academic, the worst that could happen to me if horrible things happen to China is: I don’t get to travel there as much and it may be a bit more difficult for me to do my research. In contrast to the Chinese people: We have unfortunate recent historical examples of what can happen when China goes bad. And so, what I prefer to do is to get as accurate information about my bit of the Chinese policy system that I study out there for people to essentially deal with it as they please. Because the point is this: China is going to be a major challenge for us to deal with. In some areas it is a mandatory partner: We are not going to deal with climate change, major cyber security or global economic governance issues without China. It is a country that in very many ways does not share values that we claim to hold dear, even though one look at my daily Twitter feed – again: deeply cynical – causes me to worry how dear we still hold the values, which is a problem in itself. We are going to have to be extremely clever and intelligent in dealing with the challenges and opportunities that China presents. My main audience is people in the west. My audience is European experts, scholars, policymakers etc., who will need to deal with China in the future. If I can contribute by helping them a little making better decisions when dealing with these challenges, then I am more than happy to deal with the regular accusations of panda hugging.

Not so cynical at all. Thank you!


Dr. Rogier Creemers is a researcher in the law and governance of China at Leiden University. He holds degrees in Sinology and International Relations, and a doctorate in Law. His major research interests are the Chinese government’s approach to governance and technology, as well as China’s participation in global cyber affairs. He has received a Vidi grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research for a project on the Chinese smart state. His work has been published in, amongst others, the China Journal and the Journal of Contemporary China. He is also a co-founder of DigiChina, an initiative based at New America to provide greater insight in China’s digital policies.

Rogier joined us for a live recording of an episode of the Sinica podcast on October 31 2018 on the topic of China's Social Credit System. Read our recap of the event here: Social Credit Scores in a Low-Trust Society. Listen to the episode here: Mythbusting China's Social Credit System, and find all our content on the topic here.

Serena Jung is Program Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.

For all of our events we have the honor to welcome interesting and fascinating speakers. They are not just experts of a particular field, but often have access to corners of the world most of us don't. As part of our «Behind the Scenes» series we let them speak about their life stories and experiences.