Sci-tech Asia Seminar: Debt at a Distance: China’s Debt Collection Callers during Covid-19

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February 25, 2021
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
Asian History / Studies, Business History / Studies, Economic History / Studies, Anthropology, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Debt at a Distance: China’s Debt Collection Callers during Covid-19


Dr. Tom McDonald

Department of Sociology

The University of Hong Kong



During the early stages of China’s Covid-19 outbreak — which happened to coincide with the nation’s Spring Festival celebrations — severe restrictions on nationwide travel were enacted, leaving millions numbers of workers stuck in their hometowns and unable to return to their workplaces. Many workers faced an unexpected shortfall in their earnings and as a result missed repayments on loans and credit cards. This paper examines how China’s financial institutions and debt collection agencies attempted to enforce debts “from a distance” during this period, along with debtors’ responses to these efforts. We document how both parties’ actions were framed by broader ongoing regulatory shifts whereby the state has aimed to ‘civilise’ debt collection in China. We ask what the implications of cold calling, debt collection scripts, automated messaging and Artificial Intelligence had for the moral performativity of debt collection and repayment? We argue that Covid-19 destabilised the moral norms surrounding debt, leaving debtors, debt collectors and the state struggling to decipher appropriate ways to enact debt relations.


About the Speaker

Dr. Tom McDonald is an anthropologist at the Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on technology and society in China. His current research investigates the convergence of digital money, credit and social media in China. He has published articles in several respected academic journals, including American AnthropologistChina Quarterly, and Ethnos.


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Dr. Loretta Lou

Co-convener of Sci-tech Asia Seminar