1st Edition

Living with Digital Surveillance in China Citizens’ Narratives on Technology, Privacy, and Governance

By Ariane Ollier-Malaterre Copyright 2024
    338 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    338 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Digital surveillance is a daily and all-encompassing reality of life in China. This book explores how Chinese citizens make sense of digital surveillance and live with it. It investigates their imaginaries about surveillance and privacy from within the Chinese socio-political system.

    Based on in-depth qualitative research interviews, detailed diary notes, and extensive documentation, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre attempts to ‘de-Westernise’ the internet and surveillance literature. She shows how the research participants weave a cohesive system of anguishing narratives on China’s moral shortcomings and redeeming narratives on the government and technology as civilising forces. Although many participants cast digital surveillance as indispensable in China, their misgivings, objections, and the mental tactics they employ to dissociate themselves from surveillance convey the mental and emotional weight associated with such surveillance exposure.

    The book is intended for academics and students in internet, surveillance, and Chinese studies, and those working on China in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, social psychology, psychology, communication, computer sciences, contemporary history, and political sciences. The lay public interested in the implications of technology in daily life or in contemporary China will find it accessible as it synthesises the work of sinologists and offers many interview excerpts.


    Part I: Privacy, Surveillance, and the Social Credit Systems

    1. Privacy and Surveillance

    2. Surveillance in China: From Dang’an and Hukou to the Social Credit Systems

    Part II: Anguishing Narratives of Moral Shortcomings

    3. Rules Will Raise People’s ‘Moral Quality’

    4. National Humiliations and the Civilisation Dream

    5. Saving Face: Privacy as Hiding Shameful Information

    Part III: Redeeming Narratives of Digital Protection

    6. The Government: Protection and Order

    7. Technology as a Magic Bullet

    Part IV: The Mental and Emotional Weight of Surveillance

    8. Mental Tactics to Dissociate Oneself from Surveillance

    9. Misgivings and Objections

    10. Self-censorship


    Appendix: Methods


    Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, Ph.D., is a Management Professor and the Director of the International Network on Technology, Work and Family at the University of Quebec in Montreal (ESG-UQAM), Canada. She chairs the Technology, Work and Family research community of the Work and Family Researchers Network. Her research examines digital technologies and the boundaries between work and life across different national contexts. She has published over 70 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in top-tier management, sociology, and information systems outlets (e.g., Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Management, Human Relations, Annual Review of Sociology, Journal of the Association for Information Systems, Computers in Human Behavior).

    ‘Surveillance operated by the Chinese Social Credit system has attracted much criticism from Western countries but few trouble to discover how Chinese people themselves understand and respond to surveillance. Living with Digital Surveillance engages directly, through vivid interviews, with Chinese citizens in three cities, showing how their surveillance imaginaries display distinctive features. A sensitive and illuminating contribution to our understanding of both Chinese and surveillance studies.’  

    Prof. David LyonQueen's University, Canada


    Living with Digital Surveillance in China is an essential resource for anyone interested in digital surveillance in China. It provides insightful analysis that will help students, scholars and practitioners better understand how authorities in China use digital technologies for social governance and how Chinese citizens live with it. The book draws from multiple literatures and rich fieldwork to shed light on citizens’ attitudes, behavior, and narratives regarding digital surveillance. It is an important reminder that surveillance practices must be analyzed within a country’s historical, socioeconomic and political context. This lively book is a must-read for the times we live in.’

    Prof. Genia KostkaInstitute for Chinese Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany


    ‘Surveillance has become ever more a fact of daily life in China, and a necessary object of study to understand the evolving ways in which the Communist Party of China governs society. However, lacking from view has been the way in which Chinese individuals see and engage with this surveillance state. In Living with Digital Surveillance in China, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre paints a rich and complex picture that will be of interest to China scholars and surveillance specialists in equal measure.’

    Prof. Rogier CreemersModern Chinese Studies, Leiden University, The Netherlands


    ‘Amidst persistent misunderstandings of China’s social credit systems, Living with Digital Surveillance in China provides a much needed, empirically grounded, and innovative account of Chinese citizens’ narratives of technology and surveillance as well as their coping strategies. Ollier-Malaterre carefully documents how certain hegemonic ideas of techno-nationalism such as the identity narrative of national humiliation and technological solutionism are reproduced and negotiated in everyday life, shaping citizens’ surveillance imaginaries. This book will be a valuable read for those who are interested in critical approaches to surveillance studies that challenge Eurocentric epistemology and center the agency and lived lives of communities beyond the West.’

    Prof. Chenchen ZhangDurham University, UK