Behind and beyond China's contact tracing technology-a close-up view of the entanglement of a neighbourhood community, the digital technology and the COVID-19 pandemic

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


This paper presents an ethnographic study of China's contact tracing mobile app system with the aim of answering the following questions: How has this surveillance technology developed and operated in China in its fight with COVID-19? What are the distinctive ‘socio-technical specificities’ that have contributed to it becoming one of the first successful applications of ‘mass surveillance’ to manage COVID-19? What can we learn from this case?

Drawing on insights and analytical frameworks from the field of social studies of science and technology, the paper analyses how China's COVID-19 contact tracing technology emerged as a product of a dynamic and complex entanglement between ordinary people, authorities and the cross-platform digital data infrastructure in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It depicts that this so-labelled ‘mass surveillance’ socio-technical system, with its particular material and non-material affordances, has enabled mass-participation in the process of tracing and managing COVID-19 infection risk of tracing and resolving problems that were encountered in fighting COVID-19. It highlights the widely dispersed and a distributed mechanisms at work in China, invoking intensive and extensive interactions and negotiations between a wide range of actors, including individuals with their diverse needs and wants, hierarchical and multi-layered administrations, public and private social and technical service providers, etc. Their experience in the COVID-19 pandemic may well lead to redefining mobile-based surveillance and reconfiguring their relations from each other alongside the process.
Period10 Sep 2021
Event titleAsSIST-UK 2021 Conference: Data in infrastructures in care-ful change
Event typeConference
LocationUnited Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • contact tracing technology
  • mobile-enabled surveillance
  • mass participation
  • socio-technical specificity
  • China