BCCN Online Lecture Series #2: How Digital Surveillance Justifies Massive Lockdowns in China During COVID-19
Xu Xu (Princeton University)
This lecture series is hosted by the Berlin Contemporary China Network (BCCN), an initiative by researchers at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and Technische Universität Berlin. It is organized by Freie Universität Berlin. Here you can find an overview of the lecture series.
China’s draconian response to COVID-19 drew considerable criticism, with many suggesting that intense digital surveillance and harsh lockdowns triggered the unusual public dissent seen in China in late 2022. However, this lecture argues that rather than backfiring, digital surveillance may have legitimized the government’s overreaction by making uncertain threats appear certain. The authors collected data on daily counts of lockdown neighborhoods and COVID cases from 2020 to 2023. Using a difference-in-differences approach with World Value Surveys (China 2012, 2018) and a nationwide online survey in 2023, they show that real-world lockdowns significantly reduced public perception of respect for human rights and trust in the government; however, these effects are moderated by the pervasiveness of COVID surveillance, proxied by cellphone usage. To establish causality, the authors use a survey experiment to show that digital surveillance indeed increases support for COVID lockdowns by making citizens more likely to believe they are close contacts. In contrast, surveillance cannot justify protest crackdowns. The findings suggest that uncertainty in threats to public safety may foster support for state surveillance and coercion.
Xu Xu is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Xu studies digital authoritarianism, political repression, and the political economy of development, with a regional focus on China. He is currently working on a book entitled Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance. His other ongoing projects examine public opinion on state repression in authoritarian regimes, propaganda and new media in China, and state-society relations in China. His work has appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, among other peer-reviewed journals. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Pennsylvania State University in 2019, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University from 2020 to 2021.