Building a Panopticon Through Nodal Governance: Mass Surveillance and Plural Policing in China’s COVID-19 Lockdown
At one time monitoring over 900 million people, China’s health code system is arguably the most controversial invention of the pandemic. This study explores how the system emerged and its implications for security governance in urban communities. By analysing 9,533 social media posts published during three key weeks, the study revealed that early pandemic responses in China were heavily shaped by private nodes, such as estate management companies, private security guards and homeowners. Homeowners’ demands for extra security clashed with migrants’ and tenants’ demands for mobility. The health code system was presented as a ‘solution’ to these conflicts. The findings of this study highlight the limitations of consumer-driven pluralisation in policing. Such pluralisation offered limited opportunities for democratisation. Instead, the radical pursuit of ‘club goods’ by consumer-denizens reinforced existing inequalities. Entrenched inequalities tempted marginalised social groups to accept ‘indiscriminate’ surveillance, which paved the way for a neo-panopticon. The study also warns against the alliance of state nodes and big-tech companies. Through collaboration, these powerful players can replace political dynamics in the community with data-driven modulation, thus destroying the foundation of nodal governance.
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