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State-steered smartmentality in Chinese smart urbanism

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State-steered smartmentality in Chinese smart urbanism. Urban Studies. ISSN 0042-0980
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State-steered smartmentality in Chinese smart urbanism
This study explores the socio-political shaping of Chinese smart urbanism by examining
the power relations between the government (national and municipal), private firms and
citizens embedded in smartmentality. Our exploration begins with teasing out key
analytical standpoints of Alberto Vanolo’s concept of smartmentality applied in
neoliberal practices of smart urbanism. Through this analytical framework, we
conceptualise Chinafied smartmentality and illustrate how it is actually playing out in
China by undertaking documentary research and in-depth interviews from an inductive
case study of the Smart Transportation System (STS) in the city of Shijiazhuang. We
observe that the idea of Chinafication extends smartmentality with a focus on the power
dynamic. We further argue that this Chinafied smartmentality implies uncritical
technological solutionism that is state-steered in nature and citizen participation in digital
platforms that is performed with limited roles and power of being included. The paper
concludes by calling for future research on the critical examination of value co-creation
for shaping a truly citizen-centric mode of governance in Chinese smart urbanism.
Smart urbanism, smart city, governmentality, smartmentality, power relations, citizenship,
Chinese cities
The notion of ‘smart urbanismhas gained traction amongst diverse social actors to refer
to the socio-political and political economic dynamics of technology-enabled and
networked urbanism (Kitchin, 2014; Luque-Ayala and Marvin, 2019) from which smart
cities emerge. This ‘smart urbanism’ label has engendered critical urban research on
rethinking forms of city governance and new models of government in the smart city
(Vanolo, 2014). The way in which smart cities are governed, i.e., what observers such as
Giffinger et al. (2007) have labelled smart governance, evolves differently in diverse
geographical contexts, including China, the focus of this study. However, smart
governance is not merely leveraged by high technology but driven by a set ofmentalities
of rules’, reflected as governmentality (Foucault, 1991 [1978]). Namely, there are
political rationalities shaping the ways in which government programmes are constructed
and socio-technical imperatives put these rationalities into effect (O’Malley et al., 1997).
The governing of smart urbanism programmes is often strategised to be the restructuring
of the urban regime and has been observed to involve various socio-technical practices,
such as ‘governing through code’ (Klauser et al., 2014), visualisation of urban platforms
(Young et al., 2020), and implementation of urban operating systems. Extending beyond
these practices, Vanolo (2014) argues a brand-new urban epistemology is emerging
smartmentality. It acts as a discipline system in which new geometries of power are
embedded for governing the smart urbanism. Based on his research in Italy, Vanolo
observes that the contemporary smart urbanism involves bringing together social
positionalities of diverse interest groups, knowledge and rationalities that co-produce and
reshape governing strategies. This transformation entails new power relations between
the state (government), private firms, and citizenry.
However, understanding of smartmentality in smart urbanism varies in different
geopolitical contexts. In China, for example, ten super cities with populations above 10
million were predicted to exist by 2030 (Chan and Anderson, 2018). Such a rapid
transition necessitates significant indigenous social and political commitments, which it
has been argued can be achieved by a shift towards technology-mediated and citizen-
focused urban restructuring (Li and De Jong, 2017). This objective was incorporated into
the ‘New-type Urbanization Plan (NUP)’ (State Council, 2014) released by the Chinese
national government in March 2014. The NUP was explicitly defined as Chinese smart
urbanism. However, despite many efforts to explore the design, running and perceived
challenges of smart city initiatives under the NUP (Li and De Jong, 2017; Chan and
Anderson, 2018), little reflection has taken place on understanding the socio-political
rationalities of Chinese smart urbanism through Vanolo’s (2014) lens of smartmentality.
A deeper exploration of the geometries of power relations enacted by different actors in
the creation of the Chinese smart urbanism is imperative.
Of particular interest in the Chinese context is whether the emergence of smart urbanism
potentially replicates urban transformation towards a form of neoliberalism as seen in
other countriesfor instance, beyond Vanolo’s work on the Italian context, South Africa
promotes its ‘One Cape 2040’ vision in Cape Town, manifesting a stronger public-private
partnership (Odendaal, 2015); Indian’s smart urbanism is aimed at constructing
entrepreneurial cities (Datta, 2015, 2018); Singaporean politicians advocate the Smart
Nation initiative that is built upon the ‘neoliberal-developmental logic’ (Ho, 2017).
Likewise, Shin (2014) argues that Chinese urbanisation processes in general reflect the
construction of capitalism. China has thus been considered by some to be somehow
neoliberalised since the embedding of market reforms for opening-up the economy from
1978, which it has been argued led to an underlying change of state-capital relations (He
and Wu, 2009; Li and Chan, 2017). He and Wu's (2009) thesis is that China’s neoliberal
urban transformation manifests a shift from high state expenditure towards a marketized
society. Xing and Shaw (2013) claim this as ‘state capitalism’, so the market economy is
established on the state interests, outstripping capital and class interests, forming a unique
form of neoliberalism, echoing what Harvey (2007) reflects as ‘neoliberalism with
Chinese characteristics’.
This uniqueness can be discerned in current reports about replacing the ‘growth-at-all-
costs’ with a ‘politics-in-command’ economy, and of the endeavour to balance market
prosperity and national security (Economist, 2021). For example, the state has devised
Data Security Law and Anti-Monopoly Law (Zhang, 2021) to seek to redistribute the
market power of domestic tech monopolies like Huawei and Alibaba. In extending smart
urbanism, these practices mirror Li et al.'s (2016) observations that the state continues to
apply an interventionist approach, meaning that despite the technological dominance
enacted by the titansto develop smart city projects e.g. 5G networks, autonomous
vehicles, the City Brain, to name a few the state itself seems to determine the future
orientation of urban development. In other words, China’s neoliberal smart urbanism
takes place in a context where political intervention is strong, without much space for the
autonomy of non-state actors and their activities.
Nevertheless, little research has critically examined the continuation of Chinese state
power in extending smart urbanism through the concept of smartmentality which offers
a lens onto issues of governance of the smart city. This study bridges this gap by
undertaking a case study of the development of a Smart Transportation System (STS) in
Shijiazhuang, a Chinese demonstration smart city of Tier-2 status. Drawing upon work
on neoliberal rationalities, this study aims to explore the socio-political shaping of
Chinese smart urbanism by examining the power relations between the government
(national and municipal), private firms and citizens embedded in smartmentality.
Vanolo’s (2014) concept of smartmentality is used as a lens to analyse the case of
Shijiazhuang. Our findings lead us to argue that Shijiazhuang’s smart urbanism is
strategised to be Chinafied i.e. neoliberal practices are replicated in their own way,
developing towards being what we call ‘state-steered’.
The rest of this paper is structured in five sections. The second section introduces the
concept of smartmentality in both Chinese and non-Chinese city contexts. The third
section focuses on the smartmentality analytical framing of the study based on the
neoliberal practices researchers have observed in governing Chinese smart urbanism. The
next section introduces our case study and methods. Followed are two sections that
outline the findings of the research, shaping our key observations around state-steered
technological solutionism and state-steered citizenship. The final section discusses our
key arguments around the idea of Chinafied smartmentality. It also considers the future
research orientations for work in this field.
Smartmentality for contemporary smart urbanism
Vanolo (2014) identifies the governmentality of the contemporary smart urbanism as a
discipline mechanism that he defines as smartmentality. Many states and supra-national
organisations endorse this form of smartmentality as the path to achieve technologically
advanced and sustainable urban transformation. In some cases the logic of smartmentality
is charted into a set of urban benchmarking tools which allow cities to evaluate their smart
initiatives by using data-driven ranking systems (Giffinger et al., 2007). Often times, the
ranking criteria are created by the private sector and the standard is set in concert with
tech giants aiming to enact their vision of a utopian landscape of the urban future
(Townsend, 2013). Cities are increasingly moulded into business platforms like Amazon,
i.e. platform urbanism (Graham et al., 2020; Caprotti and Liu, 2019). It is no coincidence
that benchmarking practices within platform urbanism help to build a strong industrial
coalition in which emerging socio-technical assemblages take shape. These practices
meanwhile raise controversial debates about the necessity of political interventions, and
to what extent they become useful to government and governance. Kitchin (2015) argues
that the smart city concept is never apolitical and non-ideological as far as issues around
civil rights, social inequality and inclusiveness are concerned. Further, platform-based
infrastructural designs from which vested interests benefit might lead to splintering
urbanism (Graham and Marvin, 2002), as data-driven benchmarking practices, in
particular, would enhance digitally social stratification and marginalisation.
Smartmentality in urban China, however, demonstrates a quite different rationality. In
this context, instead of being co-opted by tech giants, data-driven benchmarking practices
in Chinese smart urbanism are standardised by the state apparatus (Lin, 2018). Over the
last decade, a huge amount of investment has been made by the state into big data
solutions which are harnessed to government efforts at social regulation and
coordination – as discipline mechanisms to manage what the state deems to be urban and
social pathologies. However, whilst people enjoy using technology, they are meanwhile
strait-jacketed by the algorithms and analytics embedded within. Amongst various big
data practices, quite a few are designated as smart because they are future-oriented,
thereby enabling a speculative practice of algorithmic smartmentality (Leszczynski,
2016). For urban China, this speculative nature is manifested as ‘state surveillance’, such
as the social credit system as a vehicle for enforcing regulations and enhancing social
solidarity (Liang et al., 2018; Engelmann et al., 2021). Although critical challenges at the
municipal levels such as low data quality and siloed databases (Ahmed, 2018) and the
diversity, flexibility and comprehensiveness of social credits (Engelmann et al., 2021)
are yet to be addressed, the initiation of the social credit system indicates government’s
will to govern cities through big data. However, this practice alike may spark off issues
relating to cities’ underlying proclivity to technologically solutionist approaches i.e.
seeing technology as panacea to urban issues (Morozov, 2013) on the one hand, and
uninterrupted citizenshipi.e. the ways in which citizens are engaged in producing smart
urbanism and technologically locked-in to platform urbanism (Hemment and Townsend,
2013; Kitchin, 2014) – on the other.
With regard to the former, technological solutionism has been critiqued for lacking
critical consideration of the social impact of urban technologies manipulated by vested
interests such as the private sector and the state. These critics contend that technological
regimes ought to supplement people, knowledge and politics, rather than the other way
round (Söderström et al., 2014). As for uninterrupted citizenship, in the global reach of
platforms, citizens are parsed by real-time data analytics and thus considered as coded
subjects (Kitchin and Dodge, 2014). Although platform urbanism enables customisation,
there is a lack of civic ability for self-governance (Mann et al., 2020). In China, for
instance, the state has promoted open urban data (Liu et al., 2015) for citizens to better
access government services. Instead of stressing that government data is crucial to
citizens, however, the state is more interested in capturing personal data derived from
state surveillance for effective governance and urban sovereignty (Liang et al., 2018).
Whilst citizens in China are empowered to somehow consume services provided by
platform vendors, the state, from time to time, intervenes in data collection and the way
in which data are used towards political and economic ends. This may undermine the
state-citizen relationship (Zhang and Chen, 2015)
Both issues (technological solutionism and uninterrupted citizenship) reflect the
underlying power dynamics in enabling a technology equipped urbanism and citizenry.
Although populations in society are freed from physical and geographical restrictions and
highly centralised control systems (Foucault et al., 2008 [1978]), they are, in the
contemporary urban China, technically involved in digitally networked control systems.
Deleuze (1992) refers to this as the ‘society of control’. The more smart technologies are
leveraged, the more likely people can be surveilled, sampled and evaluated by the data
they generate. Whilst power in a neoliberal society of control is dispersed across various
vested interests who use data to make significant decisions, it is in China limited to the
state who constantly intervene in the market and the civil society in order to orchestrate
the distributed social control mechanisms. But questions remain in how, by state
intervention, private firms and citizens are involved in extending smart urbanism. In light
of this understanding of the power structure that this article focuses on, we outline in the
next section how the neoliberal practices common to understandings of smartmentality
might be understood in the context of Chinese smart urbanism.
Chinese smartmentality and neoliberal practices
“Smartnessas a concept has been argued to be a means of conveying neoliberal
ideologies that serve the interests of corporations and emphasise less (or lean) government
and more governance (Peck, 2013; Grossi and Pianezzi, 2017). Smartmentality is
inevitably grounded in the neoliberal logic of governmentality. According to Vanolo
(2014), the latter denotes a collective way of thinking of the state-society relationship,
which suggests instead of governance over people – people governing themselves, i.e.
what Foucault referred to as conducting the conduct’ of people at a distance (Foucault,
1991 [1978]). However, this relationship is rather complex and needs to be researched in
context. For example, in the UK, although the state behind the scene enforces legitimacy
over some activities, over recent decades there has been growing advocacy for
deregulation, market autonomy and privatisation on the basis of the restructuring of the
welfare state (Thomas, 2016). In other words, neoliberal governmentality underlines the
so-called ‘retreat of the state’ (Lemke, 2015) that re-delineates the power relations in
society, where operations of government are transferred to non-state actors.
Likewise, many Asian states also embrace neoliberalism as a strategy to revamp urban
configurations, socio-material practices and spatial-temporal regimes of the urban. For
instance, Ho (2017) argues that neoliberal governmentalities applied in Singapore are
aimed at consolidating authoritarian power through privatising infrastructural design.
Situating a neoliberalism-as-development strategy into the urban dynamism, Singapore
proposed a market-oriented Smart Nation initiative that reconfigures market and
institutional forces ‘in service to the state’ (Ho, 2017). In India, in her work on India’s
100 smart cities programme, Datta elucidates the extent to which Indian governmentality
is entrenched in ‘home-grown neoliberalism’ embedded in strong private sector
participation (Datta, 2015, 2018). She observes that in pursuing the entrepreneurial state,
unproductive public land resources have been appropriated and thus transformed into
business that is run by entrepreneurs meanwhile in some way being state led. In China,
however, two building blocks make the use of the neoliberal smartmentality framework
slightly different than in these other Asian countries.
The first building block is the nature and structure of dynamics of power transfer from
the state to non-state sectors, from the central authorities to local agents, and from
organisations to individuals. In their study of China's emerging neoliberal urbanism:
Perspectives from urban redevelopment, He and Wu (2009) argue that geopolitical forces
may come with convergent practices of neoliberal urbanism in different localities, and
sub-national regimes can most effectively enforce neoliberal experiments and manage
their territories. Contrary to Jessop's (2013) notion of neoliberalism being a hollowing
out of the state, this suggests meaningful decentralisation of state resources and
recalibrated functions of municipalities for local and regional innovation and economic
competitiveness on the basis of the ‘politics of scale’ (Li and Chan, 2017). Whilst cities
in China are usually the place where neoliberal practices are enacted, political-economic
contingencies vary across municipalities. This is to say, rather than simply examining
smart urbanism at the state level, it is more crucial to unbox municipal socio-political
dynamics that impact on the shaping of power relations.
The second building block is technocracy and tokenistic democracy within the urban
political economy. Since neoliberal practices worldwide often act as the guardian of
technocratic and corporate forms of governance (Hollands, 2015; Kitchin, 2015), they are
critiqued as undermining democratic accountability. Concerning the smart city in western
democracies, this raises concerns for whom the city is created, like studies promoting a
‘manifesto’ of smart citizenship (Hill, 2013). Critical urban scholars argue for ordinary
citizens owning the city (De Lange and De Waal, 2017), decentralised and open smart
city infrastructural designs (Hemment and Townsend, 2013), and smart citizens
remaining active in civic tech and hackathons (Perng et al., 2018) alike. Symbolically,
such manifestoes sound to be a remarkable transformation in the existing neoliberal
governmentality as they accentuate a certain extent of autonomy. However, in most actual
smart cities citizens are still treated as consumers being nudged towards specific conducts
and behaviours, suggesting practices of stewardship and civic paternalism (i.e. the state
makes decisions on what to offer their citizens) (Cardullo and Kitchin, 2019). To some
extent, such a consumerism evaporates an accountable democratic process. This is also
the case in China; however, a key distinction is how market and individual freedom are
defined. Zhang (2008) argues that in China there is also some emancipation of the
economy and citizenship; however, it is deeply circumscribed into the state’s regulatory
frameworks and legal systems. In a nutshell, Chinese neoliberal governmentalities do not
contradict government regulations and national top-level design and strategic planning
even if they are market- or citizen-oriented. The state plays a monopolistic role in
delimiting the scale and scope of market and individual freedom. Whilst such a political-
driven governmentality is often construed as a contradiction in itself, designated as
‘authoritarian capitalism’ (Witt and Redding, 2014), ‘state neoliberalism’ (So and Chu,
2012) or ‘market socialism’ (Zheng and Scase, 2013), it is nevertheless rather complex,
complicated and heterogeneous, making it difficult to unearth specific power relations
amongst entities.
Drawing on the above building blocks, in this paper we report the findings of an empirical
study on smart transportation system (STS) development in the Chinese city of
Shijiazhuang. The paper reports on a sub-section of the study findings, to focus on an
examination of the power relations between the national and municipal state, private firms
and local citizens through the lens of smartmentality.
Case study: Smart transportation systems in Shijiazhuang
Shijiazhuang is the capital municipality of Hebei Province, and one of the primary
transport network hubs in China with rich transportation resources. Not only is
Shijiazhuang sophisticated in inter-urban communications, but it is also advanced in
intra-urban transportation services. Existing political economic conditions make
Shijiazhuang an exemplar, and a leading city, of STS development in extending the new
urbanism amongst Chinese cities at the same administrative level. Given its transportation
advantage, Shijiazhuang is paid special attention by the national government as a Smart
City demonstration project that reflects and characterises geopolitical dynamics of the
new urbanism.
More specifically, over the past five years influential STS initiatives in Shijiazhuang have
emerged in response to the NUP. Nevertheless, one of the obstacles has been the lack of
integration of heterogenous data sources and the extraction of embedded data value
(ChinaIRR, 2018), resulting in data islands and fragmented regulation and administration.
Shijiazhuang municipality has made grandiose plans to become the national spearhead
for developing data-integrated transportation systems and a ‘one-stop platform’ of urban
transportation. Over the coming decade, this would mean replicating such a ‘Hebei
Standard’ to elsewhere in China; hence, the Shijiazhuang municipal government set out
to promote coproduction of STS services with other municipalities (Hebnews, 2021).
Substantial efforts have been made to promote private sector investment through offering
special funds for inward investments, providing entrepreneurial opportunities for local
STS start-ups, and building high-tech industrial development zones to stimulate economic
competitiveness (Zhao, 2011). Specifically, new transportation infrastructures are being
developed to embed high capacity for processing a large amount of data sources through
the integration of 5G networks, Internet of Things, and BeiDou Navigation Satellite
System (Hebnews, 2021). This study offers empirical insights on the socio-political
shaping of these developments in Shijiazhuang in which power relations between
different stakeholders (national and municipal state, private sector and citizens) reflect a
Chinafied form of smartmentality.
We carried out a review of NUP and Chinese smart city policies alongside 20 semi-
structured interviews as empirical data. Amongst them, 15 participants from three local
STS firms in Shijiazhuang were interviewed, including three project managers who had
gained strong experience in managing and supervising STS projects on a macro scale and
were knowledgeable in both technical and social aspects of developing STS applications,
especially those in relation to their own organisational context; three strategic directors
who were specialised in top-level design and overall planning of STS project
implementation and usually had strong connections with government officials and policy-
makers; and nine data scientists. Another five interviews were undertaken to consult
municipal government officials in different positions from Shijiazhuang Transportation
Bureau (STB hereafter) and Shijiazhuang Traffic Management Bureau in Department of
Public Security of Hebei Province (STMB hereafter). The arguments made in the
following sections are built upon the narrative from the synthesis of policies, literature
and excerpts from our empirical study.
State-steered technological solutionism
This findings section discusses the Shijiazhuang case of the power relation between the
national government, municipal government and private firms in the new urbanism; the
first building block of Chinese smartmentality identified above is reflected by our
observations of the Shijiazhuang municipal government adopting a technologically
solutionist vision for local STS developments. This vision emphasises the favouring of
technocratic decision making, leading to Shijiazhuang municipal government positioning
itself as a smart government in an effort to engage local private firms in extending the
smart urbanism. In the following paragraphs, we develop two anchor points from the
findings to demonstrate the form of technological solutionism playing out in
Shijiazhuang’s STS developments.
Firstly, we observe that despite various marketised and privatised STS solutions in
Shijiazhuang, Chinafied neoliberal smartmentality reveals a top-down power structure of
the state and its subordinate institutions, for instance, in the extent to which municipal
governments have autonomy in administration. While the NUP claims to deliver more
autonomy from national government to municipalities and private sector, evidence from
Shijiazhuang suggests that the NUP does not fully achieve this. This is due to the lack of
effective political devolution, i.e. a lack of empowering subordinate levels of government.
As one participant observed:
“We know what we need [to do]deploying reversible lanes on the main road,
for examplebut we are not fully empowered to make critical decisions of doing
so. Our execution of duty must correspond to the legitimacy of decision-making
from the top [government]. We do what we have been informed to do within the
jurisdictional remit.” (Interview: Government agency, STMB)
Shijiazhuang municipal government has insufficient resources distributed from the
national government and limited power to put decision-making into effect. As a
consequence, transportation departments like STB and STMB have no alternative but to
conform to what they are mandated to do, even if it is very likely that they are more
familiar with local issues in practice.
There have been a few times over the past several decades where the Chinese state has
advocated for a more transparent, dynamic, and decentralised form of governance since
the Reform and Opening-Up in 1978. However, the findings of our research in
Shijiazhuang suggest that the idea of ‘decentralisation’ expressed in the NUP is
superficial. Despite market-oriented smart city delivery and provisioning, examination of
the NUP’s proposed political devolution in practice raises critical concerns regarding the
extent to which authorities subordinate to the national government are empowered with
the right of decision making.
He and Wu (2009) argue that two tasks are crucial to urban redevelopment projects
creating incentives at the local level and transferring responsibility from the centre to the
local. Extending from this, we observed in our study that the municipal government was
mandated to implement smart urbanism agendas enacted by the national government. The
implementation of particular technologies has been considered imperative, in a
technically solutionist way, by the national state. The national government works on top-
level design and decision making, whereas the municipal level is more active in operation
and implementation with symbolic compliance. However, Shijiazhuang’s local and
district variations of social, political, cultural and technical dynamics were often
neglected. Whilst local intricacies may vary from place to place, the municipal
government of Shijiazhuang is observed to follow along with the national agenda
regardless. This pattern of power relations between the national and municipal
government contributes to shaping the technological solutionism evident in the city’s
smart urbanism.
Secondly, we observe that the NUP as implemented in Shijiazhuang’s STS developments
demonstrates a pro-government mode of smart urbanism enabled by industry alliances
and state-private partnerships. In the case of Shijiazhuang’s STS, whilst the municipal
government owns comprehensive transportation data sources (e.g. road networks,
infrastructure data), in order to advance the STS initiative they need complementary data
that are heterogenous and citizen-oriented in nature from private firms. These data from
private firms are considered rich and timely and are perceived to contain value that can
be harnessed by government for effective urban control and governance. For example,
vehicle density data owned by car-sharing firms would be of value for managing traffic
flows. Under national regulations, municipal governments have legal rights to access
private firms’ data; for instance, GPS data concerning real-time bike distribution from
bike-sharing firms. This legal right to access is referred to as ‘data handover’ by those
working in government.
Behind this right of ‘data handover’ indicates a future possibility for Shijiazhuang’s STS
development. First, more centralised traffic control, mass surveillance, and coordination
could be strengthened if the municipal government back up all data sources in one place.
Second, they could more effectively exert regulatory oversight through comprehensive
data analysis over market activities and information dissemination. Participants noted that
Shijiazhuang municipal government was making an effort to establish ‘coordination
mechanisms for the purpose of managing STS stakeholder relations with value
cocreation goals concerning data, application and service integration, reciprocal
accountability and reliability, resource management, and leadership. These potentialities
align with government visions for an integrated social credit system (Liang et al., 2018).
The coordination mechanism comprised private actors, scholars and government officials.
Extending from Vanolo’s (2014) discipline mechanisms of smartmentality that empowers
private actors through partnerships and alliances, we observe initiatives like the emergent
coordination mechanisms in Shijiazhuang’s NUP transition were steered by the municipal
government. For example, on the 11th October 2019, the Second China International
Digital Economy Expo was held in Shijiazhuang (Xinhua, 2019). One of the sessions the
expo participants noted as fascinating was the Shijiazhuang Smart City Summit Forum
that convened renowned entrepreneurs from tech giants such as Alibaba and Huawei,
academic scholars from Beihang University, political elites from the State Information
Centre, and technocrats from the Central Government. The Shijiazhuang New-Type
Smart City Master Planning (SNSC) agenda was officially released as a response to the
NUP. The SNSC highlighted 46 major projects, including a cloud-based and networked
smart transportation service platform. One year before these projects were launched, the
Shijiazhuang Municipal Government constituted Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV) to
undertake the preliminary work underlying these projects. An SPV is a policy mechanism
officially administered by the municipal government and aggregates some of government
assets such as traffic data to undertake special tasks that involved protocol-based data
input and output and data transactions between the public and private sector. Shijiazhuang
Big Data Centre was considered by participants a representative SPV, jointly founded by
the municipal government and state enterprises, with the aim to effectively manage and
coordinate diverse data resources for distinct purposes (Hebei News, 2020). In short, the
aim of building SPVs was to unify data resources and integrate independent systems.
The building of SPVs with an ultimate goal of integrating data requires the municipal
government to mobilise heterogeneous data sources based on national government’s
master planning and system integration, but participants report that various challenges
exist. Firstly, geo-political contingencies vary between cities at different administrative
scales. Because of uneven distribution of transportation resources, innovations that are
well developed in cities on a different administrative level may not be adaptable to
Shijiazhuang, and vice versa. Secondly, a national standard system has not yet been
established. Despite many efforts to build data infrastructures for effective integration, a
plethora of big data in Chinese smart cities still remain in silos (An et al., 2016; Li et al.,
2019). Our research in Shijiazhuang indicated that failures to create a national standard
is not because of technology only, but due to the symbiotic relationship between
government and vested interests. Government and public and private firms reciprocally
benefit from the interests of each other, namely win-win ends that reflect the prioritisation
of state interests in fostering an economic competitiveness that rests on innovations
developed by these firms. For example, many Chinese smart city initiatives, such as built
data infrastructures (Ming and Wang, 2013), open government data practices (Liu et al.,
2015; Gao, 2016), and big data-led sharing economy (An, 2015), are steered by the state
whilst technically underpinned by technology firms. Standardising smart city resources
was therefore considered by participants to threaten competing vested interests on a larger
scale. The national government would not embark on this without deliberation on the
profound impact such a move may have on overall urban innovation capacity and market
dynamics from which citizens can benefit. These observations demonstrate some of the
power relations playing out between the municipal state and private firms which in
concert co-shape technologically solutionist interventions. Yet, despite the echoes with
neoliberal market-orientation, the state steers the coordination and partnerships.
To sum up, reflecting He and Wu's (2009) observations of the neoliberal characteristics
of Chinese contemporary urbanism, we observed that Shijiazhuang’s technological
solutionism appeared to be constrained by unique Chinese political and legal systems.
This is to say, despite adaptations and replications of technical solutions from other
countries, we contend that the technologically solutionist form of smartmentality that we
observed in Shijiazhuang was national government, rather than private sector, steered in
nature. For the purpose of (re-)distributing and coordinating resources, the national state
was observed to orientate the coalition between the national and municipal state and
private sectors towards national state interests. In so doing, it enacted a smart discipline
mechanism for standardising smart city practices. Under such a state-steered mechanism,
citywide industry alliances and state-private partnerships based on the NUP, we observed,
suggest a form of smartmentality that is Chinafied.
State-steered citizen participation through digital platforms
The second section of findings reflecting the second building block established in
literature analyses Shijiazhuang’s case in relation to technocracy and tokenistic forms
of democratic citizenship. Shijiazhuang’s STS development not only has implications for
state-private power relations, but also transforms the means by which services are
delivered for civic ends. While the neoliberal rationality of the NUP claims to be ‘citizen-
centric’ and foster democratic accountability, in the context of Shijiazhuang many
participants alluded to ‘state manipulation’ (Interview: STS firms). The proliferation of
platform-based STS initiatives in Shijiazhuang reshapes civic mobility patterns and the
mode of citizen participation in creating smarter urban transportation. On the one hand,
citizens become smarter’ (as in more informed) in their daily interaction with digital
arrangements; on the other, smart urbanism on a broader level is being extended by the
growth of this platform urbanism.
However, we note that Chinese platform urbanism overemphasises commodification and
political legitimacy with respect to national strategy, and often leaves citizens’ will aside.
For example, an echo prevails amongst scholars that platform urbanism is crucial in
building urban ecosystems and governing Chinese cities (Caprotti and Liu, 2019; Chen
and Qiu, 2019). Our findings in Shijiazhuang echo neoliberal practices in many western
countries that this platformisation is largely led by private firms, who are perceived as
“more qualified and trustworthy by the state” than government departments (Interview:
government, STB). The municipal government fully encourages citizens’ digital
participation by giving way to private firms for civic innovations, e.g. Shijiazhuang Smart
Public Transport App. However, the way in which innovations are developed is
manoeuvred by the government. An underlying issue of building platform urbanism
herein would need to be reflected upon: is the wide civic public satisfied with those
designated ‘citizen-centric’ solutions? Certainly, this is not merely a problem with
analytics, algorithms, and automation, etc, but about deeply entrenched civic issues with
respect to, what we note, two interrelated factors: ownership of platform urbanism and
civic control.
Our empirical research responded to the longstanding debate in smart city discourse in
regard to who are included in the digital society within the new urbanism. First of all,
inclusiveness indicates the use of ‘hukou’ system (i.e. local household registration). Over
a long time, people without the ‘urban hukou’ have been excluded from urban citizenship
(Zhang, 2012), meaning that they were not qualified for many public services. In the case
of Shijiazhuang’s public transportation becoming smart’, participants involved in the
development noted that everyone would be able to use digital platforms, and that all state
administrative procedures would be open to citizens via internet without ‘hukou’
constraints, such as applying for driving licences, assessing legal counselling, accessing
policy change, etc. From this point of view, the emerging platform urbanism functions to
redefine citizenship for those “actually existing smart citizens(Shelton and Lodato,
2019), so that the everyday mobility of everybody is platform-mediated. However, these
smart initiatives indicate utopian ownership of platform urbanism. Quite the opposite is
the issue of digital inclusion; not all citizens are digitally included, such as those
marginalised as urban poor whose voice represents basic social demand.
The Shijiazhuang municipal government follows the NUP to embrace the sustainability
vision – whether or not it is a good solution with long-term effects – and, therefore, takes
a majority principle into account (variegated in circumstances). The intention of this
principle is not really to decide whether or not to include the marginalised, but to make
apparently rational decisions in building sustainable living environments and in pursuing
long-term interests of the vast majority.
“Citizens are the end-users … Although their voice is important and smart
technologies are pushed to better serve their life, we have to be critical in hearing
what they say. Not all citizen demands are realistic; they are only a sort of
expression for the ideal form of urban life. … Transport decision-makers would
need to be critical in grasping critical success factors and have foresight of
sustainable development” (Interview: STS firms)
When it comes to specific actions and modalities of citizen participation in the
implementation of Shijiazhuang’s STS, we observe that citizens are active in
implementation and post-event feedback loops. That is, their input is more as a consumer
of STS products. However, citizens have no role in the decision-making and design of
STS systems, e.g. in terms of the types of service delivery, deployment of transportation
facilities, and trajectories of data transmission. Instead, the municipal government
following the strategy of the national government assumes to know what a “citizen-
centric” design as mandated by the NUP should look like. Technocratic and commodified
form of governance mediated by platforms has, we argue, led to a ‘taken-for-granted
view of citizenship, namely the state’s (both national and municipal) decision making has
always been true in terms of what is good for citizens.
Limited citizen roles in turn are an advantage for the state to exert civic control through
surveillance systems because citizens do little to change anything in relation to data and
their mobility patterns. Thus, citizens fear to be unique, i.e. being what Pierce (2017) calls
‘otherised’. Surveillance centralises the state power and strengthens its political
legitimacy in defining the hierarchical power relation between the surveilled and
surveillers. For example, in the context of Shijiazhuang’s STS, STMB provides a
Hawkeye-enabled panoptic surveillance system displayed in the traffic control room. It
targets not only criminals but also citizens who break traffic rules, or those who exploit
the traffic legal loophole (e.g. speeding on roads without clearly stipulated speed limits).
In a nutshell, surveillance-based digital platforms are, though innovated by corporations,
harnessed by the state to exert civic control for strengthening technological sovereignty.
Discussion and conclusion
This study examined the power dynamic embedded in the Chinese new urbanism based
on an analysis of Shijiazhuang’s STS development through the lens of Vanolo’s (2014)
smartmentality. We argue that this smartmentality in this study is a manifestation of
Chinafication. The term Chinafication rejects a one-size-fits-all form of neoliberal
practices because of indigenous intricacies of its urban political economy which shapes
neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics(Harvey, 2007) that, in the case of this study,
go much deeper in terms of power. The findings from Shijiazhuang indicate a more
complex relationality of, and a multi-level perspective on, the power relations between
stakeholders. Particularly, we argue that the state (both municipal and national) plays a
steering role in the development of a smart urbanism that sits comfortably within
Chinafied neoliberal practices common in many urban areas.
Firstly, on whether at national or municipal level the state steers the governance of the
smart urbanism. More specifically, the national government steers the top-level design of
the landscape, and both national and municipal governments steer the management and
implementation processes. The municipal government, in particular, enacts a follow-up
agenda in consolidating the national regime. This reflects an important aspect of
Chinafied smartmentality, which is different from the Indian smart urbanism where the
national, state and municipal governments focus on management, deployment and
implementation, respectively (Ahluwalia, 2019; Prasad et al., 2021). The lack of political
devolution in decision-making handicaps flexibility of pragmatic and substantial
decision-making on the city’s STS efforts and often results in the overlooking of local
contingencies and uncertainties, hence leading to low applicability and uptake rate of
existing STS applications in the city.
Secondly, the leading position of municipal governments vis-à-vis local private firms
creates a state-based vantage point for effective urban governance that is technology
enabled. While neoliberalism advocates free markets, privatisation and profitable capital
accumulation (Harvey, 2007), in China municipal governments, rather than privatising
public services, are keen to build coordination mechanisms to mobilise different agents
across the private and public sectors. The building of SPVs is an effective state-steered
mechanism to formulate policies, make rules and regulations, and integrate urban
resources into one place. Distinct from the regulatory role of the state in the contemporary
smart city in the neoliberal west, the Chinese state at both municipal and national levels
centralises its power in a more delicate manner one that constantly exercises market
intervention via regulatory oversight and setting rules and tactics for tasks required to
proceed. The fact that the state suspended the initial public offering (IPO) of Alibaba’s
Ant Group, for instance, is a manifestation of the state leveraging regulatory and political
influence on tech giants in terms of data ownership, inasmuch as troves of data generated
from therein are considered crucial for governance (Economist, 2021). In the context of
Shijiazhuang’s STS, state intervention is observed in the fact that the municipal
government has a legal right to access firms’ databases. This is a practice that, on the one
hand, demonstrates how these partnership arrangements can be win-win for both firms
and government; the firm gets the contract and the government get the data. On the other
hand, data-driven technologies help to extend further smart innovations. Whilst the NUP
extols the virtue of technology, it is moulded as a technologically solutionist vision by
the national and municipal government.
This leads to our third observation. Our empirical study of Shijiazhuang’s STS initiative
reveals contradictions between STS deployment and citizenship. The emerging platform
urbanism in Chinese cities also suggests a crucial aspect of Chinafied smartmentality. It
transforms governance from ‘subjectification’ (restricting individual or group actions)
(Krivý, 2018) towards Deleuze's (1992) ‘society of control’ . In the case of this study,
this control is enabled by deterministic technologies which the state believes crucial for
regulation of social order. Despite a certain extent of distributed power and citizen
participation in the design of platform urbanism, the state determines how the algorithms
and urban informatics behind the scenes serve the purpose of inclusion/exclusion, rather
than these being citizen-deterministic, manifesting technocracy and tokenistic democracy.
In urban China, we argue that all citizens are included in the smart city only when they
are being watched through surveillance systems; this is the moment where the state aims
to exert political control for building rigid social order and mitigating social unrest.
However, beyond the purpose of surveillance, citizens have no opportunity to be included,
especially in the design and decision-making process where they play little role. Within
the neoliberal city context, histories of tokenistic and consumerist modes of citizen
participation (Cardullo and Kitchin, 2019) have led to calls for the right to the smart city
(Kitchin et al., 2019), technological sovereignty against anxieties of control (Mann et al.,
2020), and inclusive smart urbanism (Swilling, 2014; Lee et al., 2020). However, in China,
local citizen inclusion in the design of smart cities is not often charted into the agenda;
citizens are only engaged as end-user consumers giving feedback on smart applications.
Moreover, the non-included does not necessarily refer only to the marginalised groups
but those whose desires and proposed will of participation are not deemed realistic to the
state. Decisions of whether they are realistic are made through negotiations between key
state and corporate players, such as those involved in the coordination mechanisms.
Citizen or community representatives never appear at such events. It just seems to be two
bodies sitting together proposing a citizen-centric landscape of the new urbanism, without
really acknowledging what kind of solutions would deliver best value for their citizens –
despite claiming they otherwise do.
Rather than intending herein to critique any element of the ‘steering’ notion, we instead
call for further polemics against the extent to which such state-steered rationalities would
avoid Chinese new urbanism being uncritically technologically solutionist. This would
also engender critical examination of value co-creation for shaping a truly citizen-centric
mode of governance. Power relations between the government at different levels, firms
and citizens have been unravelled in this article; however, the focus on Chinafied
smartmentality of the new urbanism shows the importance of deeper exploration of
effective value co-creation strategies in this context.
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