The State and Digital Society in China: Big Brother Xi is Watching You!

Jean-Pierre Cabestan*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

    4 Citations (Scopus)


    There is no question that China is ahead of many developed countries in the digitalization of both its society and surveillance systems. It is also clear that the new technologies made possible by this digitalization-the widespread use of smart ID cards, the Great Firewall, the accumulation of Big Data, the social credit system (SCS) and facial recognition-have enhanced the capacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to rule China, maintain control over society and stay in power indefinitely. While these are not the only systems in place to manage and control Chinese citizens and this is not their sole purpose, these developments have been rightly seen as part of an ambitious Orwellian project to micromanage and microcontrol every aspect of Chinese society. To better comprehend the significance of this new phenomenon, this paper employs Michel Foucault's "Panopticon" metaphor, the perfect mean of surveillance and discipline as well as an "apparatus of power." Yet, these new technologies have their own limits. In real life there is no perfect Panopticon as no society, even the most controlled one, is a sealed prison. Censorship on the Web is erratic and the full implementation of the SCS is likely to be postponed beyond 2020 for both technical and political reasons, as more Chinese citizens have raised concerns about unchecked data collection and privacy breaches. As a result, China is probably heading toward a somewhat fragmented digitalized society and surveillance system that is more repressive in some localities and more flexible in others, as is the case with the Chinese bureaucracy in general.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number2040003
    JournalIssues and Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020

    Scopus Subject Areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations

    User-Defined Keywords

    • Chinese Communist Party
    • digital society
    • fragmented authoritarianism
    • Michel Foucault
    • Xi Jinping


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