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Abstract

This project examines the intersection of surveillance studies, international relations, and disability studies to trace the impact of digitalization on surveillance systems in China. In exploring the development and transformation of surveillance practices, I trace the state’s construction of “key personnel'' (重点人员), depicting people with mental illnesses as dangerous and violent to justify greater social management (社会管理) and exertion of “kindly power.” Drawing on policy documents, newspaper articles, and archival research, I offer an account of how the digitalization of surveillance systems in China has transformed the surveillance of people with mental illnesses by increasing the scope and scale of monitoring, tracking, and predictive policing, while also amplifying the inequities of existing surveillance practices. I argue there are three key ways in which digitalization has shifted surveillance practices to varying degrees, particularly for people with disabilities: (1) digitalization has allowed for increasingly predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory policing; (2) digitalization has enabled the integration of previously separate data systems to include data originally collected in various domains and from different institutions; (3) digitalization has enabled state authorities to expand the scope and scale of potential threats to widen the number of people and groups that the CCP defines as “key personnel.” In this project, I seek to challenge traditional depictions of mass surveillance as indiscriminately and impartially monitoring all citizens in China. Rather, I offer a new perspective on the disproportionate surveillance targeting and scrutiny of people with disabilities. Thus, I contend digitalization has both amplified the overall degree of surveillance, as well transformed the state’s view of the population, constructing certain groups as more threatening. Furthermore, I argue these systems of surveillance shape intentions, as well as vice versa. By its very nature, digitalization has enabled more widespread and efficient surveillance, making governments more inclined and empowered to surveil and eliminate perceived ‘threats’ within domestic citizenry. Conversely, the states that already seek to remove or control domestic ‘threats,’ increasingly turn to digitalization and intrusive surveillance methods. As these surveillance systems are exported from China and operationalized by other authoritarian regimes, digitalization will enable greater targeted repression, both because of and contributing to the state’s intentions for domination, security, and control.

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