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Governing with Data: Local Experimentation in Authoritarian China

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - DigitalGovernance (Governing with Data: Local Experimentation in Authoritarian China)

Reporting period: 2022-04-01 to 2023-09-30

As new information technologies and the advent of “big data” are reshaping societies around the globe, inquiries into the nature and varieties of digital governance and their consequences become increasingly urgent. “Smart cities” are mushrooming particularly quickly in China, which is home to more than half of the more than 1,000 smart cities worldwide. These city governments have begun to experiment with digital technologies to harness the power of big data analytics for governing society. Emerging practices have momentous implications for the organization of social, political and economic life in China and globally. In this research project, we systematically study digital governance practices in authoritarian China.
One core aim of the project is to study the variations in local digital governance modes in China and why these modes evolved in different ways. We will analyze if and how industrial structures, local leaders’ incentives, civil society and other factors help to explain the variation in local digital governance. We also analyze how digital technologies are integrated into different policy areas and with what effects.
Despite strong advocacy by the Chinese central government, digital governance has been implemented unevenly across different regions in China. Even within the same province, different prefectures show significant variations in efforts and enthusiasm in pushing forward digital governance agenda.
1. What are the patterns of local digital governance adaptation?
2. What factors are correlated with the variations of local digital governance adaptation?
Our second core aim is to study digital initiatives in a variety of sectors, including health care, environment, traffic, and security. We specifically focus also on a number of key technologies and digital themes: facial recognition technologies, social credit systems, and contact tracing apps.
The following results have been achieved so far:

First, drawing on semi-structured interviews and document analysis in Shenzhen, one of China’s most praised smart cities, we studied why national digital ambitions do not always get implemented directly at the local level. In our published case study on Shenzhen (Große-Bley and Kostka, 2021), we show that, at the local level, the successful implementation of digital systems faces numerous hurdles in long-standing data management and bureaucratic practices that are at least as challenging as the technical problems. Furthermore, the study finds that the digital systems in Shenzhen entail a creeping centralization of data that potentially turns lower administrative government units into mere users of the city-level smart platforms rather than being in control of their own data resources. Smart city development and big data ambitions thereby imply shifting stakeholder relations at the local level and also pull non-governmental stakeholders, such as IT companies and research institutions, closer to new data flows and smart governance systems.

Second, we set up a digital database on digital governance in China at the local level via web scrapping and human coding, using the provinces Anhui, Sichuan, and Zhejiang as focus provinces. The goal was to build a dataset containing prefectural-level data on local government initiatives of digital governance in China. The sources of the database are from but are not limited to official government websites (prefecture, county, and district level government websites, relevant bureaus such as Big Data Bureau websites), media reports, special journals, statistics, yearbooks, and other official reports.

Third, in our project, we studied how facial recognition technology (FRT) is employed in China and assess public attitudes toward FRT. We find that on the one hand, FRT is seen as a potentially powerful instrument for law enforcement and commercial interests. Government applications of FRT are wide-ranging, including improved security in schools and airports, location of missing people, fighting against crime and corruption, paying out pensions, imposing age restrictions on online viewing of pornography, and limiting gambling addiction. At the same time, FRT poses ethical dilemmas, since the technology is subject to biases, remains prone to inaccuracies, and can intrude on privacy when used clandestinely. The promised benefits of FRT applications come with trade-offs regarding digital mass surveillance, discrimination, privacy intrusion, as well as infringement on human rights. As a multi-purpose tool, the same underlying technology thus helps people and saves lives, and can also horrify individuals and pose ethical conundrums. In our project, we study how technology is employed in China and assess public attitudes toward FRT. While previous research has pointed out that facial recognition technology is an instrument for state surveillance and control, our study, based on interviews and an online survey, shows that surveillance and control are not foremost on the minds of citizens in China, but rather notions of convenience and improved security.

Fourth, a variety of commercial and local government Social Credit Systems (SCSs) are now being implemented in China in order to steer the behavior of Chinese individuals, businesses, social organizations, and government agencies. Previous studies have looked at SCS in general (Creemers, 2018) or studied public attitudes of SCS (Kostka, 2019) and behavioral responses, (Kostka and Antoine, 2020). The Chinese government with its control of state media has a powerful instrument with which to maintain positive impressions of SCSs. In this subproject of the overall ERC project, we studied if and to what extent Chinese state media has painted a rosy picture of the SCSs, an issue framing that our previous analysis suggests has been quite successful. We explain this overall positive attitude by citizens by focusing on citizens’ lack of knowledge regarding the repressive nature of digital surveillance in dictatorships (Xu, Kostka, Xun 2023). We further suggest that, despite perceiving SCSs as accepting and positive, most interviewees do not actively engage with local government-run SCSs (Li and Kostka, 2022). Multiple factors can explain the gap between high acceptance and low participation, including a lack of awareness regarding local SCSs, a perception that registering and maintaining a decent credit score requires major effort, various concerns over SCSs (e.g. information privacy and safety, as well as algorithm accuracy and fairness), clarity of rules and guidelines, potential risks, unappealing benefits offered by SCSs, and the voluntariness of participating in local SCSs. Our research adds to the existing literature on digital governance in authoritarian contexts by explaining why Chinese citizens do not necessarily engage with state-promoted digital projects.
While previous research has pointed out that digital technologies such as facial recognition technologies are an instrument for state surveillance and control, our project findings so far, based on interviews and an online survey, shows that surveillance and control are not foremost on the minds of citizens in China, but rather notions of convenience and improved security. The research findings further highlight the importance of knowledge about digital technologies and surveillance among citizens. In China, citizens’ lack of knowledge regarding the repressive nature of digital surveillance helps to explain why citizens are supporting or accepting digital surveillance and control. Finally, in our project, we currently plan a survey on emotions and digital control and analyze fieldwork materials from March-April 2023 (50 semi-structured interviews) on citizen emotions. We argue that the relationship between digital control and individual-level emotions in China reflects the increasingly asymmetrical state-society power relation. Our preliminary findings show that the most prevalent emotions toward digital censorship are negative in nature, such as anger, sadness, and disappointment. These emotions were most present in the initial phase of citizens’ experience with digital control, especially when the contrast was stark enough with the prior status where less to no control was perceived. However, in most cases, these negative emotions do not translate into antagonistic political attitudes or political actions, instead, the emotions tend to diminish with time and are replaced by a sense of resignation or delusion. Moreover, our early findings show that when digital control creeps into everyday life, such as digital surveillance implemented in the public sphere, people are emotionally less reactive. Overall, an individual’s feelings towards the state's digital control are closely related to individual experiences, cognitive processes, values, as well as personality, and demonstrate a regional variation. In the next two years, we will use online surveys and fieldwork to further expand and consolidate these early findings.
Smart city planning in China