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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Published: 2023-09-25
Issue:Online First
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How to Cite
Chen, Q. (2023) “Building a Panopticon Through Nodal Governance: Mass Surveillance and Plural Policing in China’s COVID-19 Lockdown”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.2733.

Author Biography

University of Nottingham
 United Kingdom

Qi is currently an assistant professor in criminology at the University of Nottingham, UK. Between 2015 and 2021 she worked as lecturer (then senior lecturer) at the University of Hertfordshire. She obtained her PhD in comparative penology and criminal justice from the University of Nottingham in 2015. 

Qi is the author of Governance, Social Control and legal reform in China: Community sanctions and measures (Palgrave 2018), winner of the Asian Criminological Society's Distinguished Prize 2019. 

Qi also writes about criminal sentencing (both in China and in the UK) and sex offender registration.