A Tale of the Digital: Governing China with Data Infrastructure

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A Tale of the Digital: Governing China with Data Infrastructure

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This dissertation is about how data technologies become an “infrastructure of governing” in contemporary China’s pursuit of socialist modernity. The research is situated in China’s current endeavor of utilizing “New Infrastructure” for national governance, and of achieving an enhancement of the state’s governing capacity through digital technologies. It describes the “structure of feeling” of digital governance, which I argue is emerging as a new Chinese governmentality. The research critically contextualizes today’s digital endeavor within China’s modernization history, and with detailed case studies focusing on one of China’s eight National Data Hubs—Guizhou Hub, it reveals how data technology has become and is still becoming an infrastructure for the Chinese state’s governance of its people and the Chinese people’s understanding of their everyday lives. I argue that through what I call “state-commercial complexes” and “infrastructure of feeling,” data technologies become the undergirding networks of power that sustain a mode of digital governance. The research combines theoretical interventions of infrastructure studies, governmentality, and media studies. It provides “thick descriptions” of the political-economic arrangements, local institutional formations, and complex interactions among the central/local government, stateowned-enterprises, as well as domestic and international corporations in the process of Guizhou Hub’s emergence; It also unearths how these formations involve particularities of local, ordinary people as they live through the landscape cultural-scape transformation of Guizhou’s development of data centers and data technologies, and how these, in turn, produce contingent outcomes that shape and re-configure how data technologies are localized. With an interdisciplinary approach that combines historical, political economy, cultural and ethnographic analysis, this research showcases how national strategy and digital technologies are institutionalized and normalized on regional and local levels and thus become a symbiotic part of the local power network. It argues that we are witnessing the emergence of a new Chinese governmentality that—with datafication and dataismrevitalizes the socialist rationality of seeking full access to its governing subject. However, the localization of digital governance rationality is challenged by the very processes of its own implementation, as the infrastructurizing of data technologies inevitably involves contingent processes of localization where anti-hegemonic forces emerge.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2023. Major: Communication Studies. Advisor: Mary Vavrus. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 350 pages.

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Liu, Kevin. (2023). A Tale of the Digital: Governing China with Data Infrastructure. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/258794.

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