Chuncheng Liu is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Science at the University of California San Diego. He works on topics at the intersection of science and technology studies, political sociology, economic sociology, and critical data studies, with broad interests in classifications, states, and sociotechnical systems. He has studied the politics of Chinese social credit systems, contact tracing APPs, and global health institutions. His research has appeared in Big Data & Society, International Sociology, Social Science & Medicine, and Science, Technology & Human Values, among others.

Talk: On the Boundary: How Bureaucrats Datafy Everyday Behavior in China

Abstract: Controversies surrounding China's social credit systems (SCS), which aim to surveil and document everyday behavior to assess citizens' trustworthiness with algorithms, epitomize the debates of data-driven governance given the state’s data infrastructure expansion and its increased capacity to see and control. What is often overlooked is how data of the governance is produced as a dynamic social process. In this talk, I examine the datafication process of a Chinese SCS based on a 10-month ethnography of three government agencies and 104 interviews in a Northern Chinese city. Contrary to popular, Orwellian perceptions of the Chinese SCS, I show how seemingly data-driven governance is commonly based on practices that undermine the vision of the state, such as selective data collection and data fabrication. Building on critical data studies and infrastructure studies, I propose a concept of 'boundary embeddedness' to explain this puzzling outcome. I highlight the unique embedded positionality of bureaucrats who conduct datafication between the state and society, where different organizational, institutional, and relational contexts apply. Ultimately, distorted visions of the state are produced. My research articulates the limits of and possible social resistance to data-driven governance, highlighting the urge to reconceptualize the relationship between the state and society in the data-mediated world.