From Datafication to Data State: Making Sense of China’s Social Credit System and Its Implications

Co-author: Anne Cheung & Yongxi Chen

Published by the Law & Social Inquiry, Cambridge University Press, 2021

Abstract: We live in an age of datafication wherein nearly all aspects of our lives can be transformed into data and evaluated. The authors seek to make sense of the heightened datafication-enabled social control under China’s Social Credit System (SCS) by developing the concept of the data state. A “data state” is defined as a governance model enabling the state to comprehensively monitor, evaluate, and control its subjects through datafication, leaving them little room to defend their autonomy. We identify the multiple functions of the SCS in its development up to 2020 and analyze its inherent defects, including the decontextualized evaluation of individuals and the semi-automated imposition of disproportionate punishment. We argue that, if the SCS were to fully integrate its functions and connect to other data-driven governance initiatives, it would eventually allow the data self, carefully groomed by the state, to dominate the bio-self and turn China into a data state. Whereas China’s SCS may be unique and not easily replicated elsewhere, understanding its intricacies helps to enable the citizens of democratic societies to guard against the relentless growth of datafication that may result in an invincible and irreversible ecosystem for the emergence of a data state.

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