Digital surveillance underpins China’s Covid policy

Critics fear Beijing will export a new model of ‘technological authoritarianism’ globally

This is an edited abridged version of an article that first appeared on the echowall website on October 1. To read the full original version click on this link.

“Did they have the green health code for entering China?” When three Chinese astronauts returned to earth in September after a space mission, Chinese internet users ironically posted this question. 

Having been the first to bear the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, China also turned out to be the first nation to adopt high-tech surveillance in response.

The technology wasn’t homegrown but is simple enough – a rapid collection of geolocation information on citizens’ movements, used in turn to track the spread of diseases and monitor the range of citizens’ activities.

Since early 2020, localities around the country have rolled out a smorgasbord of health-related QR codes that citizens need to carry and show, with many everyday activities now off-limits for anyone lacking a so-called “green code” confirming that they’re healthy.

The central government laid down “zero-Covid” (??) as an overarching objective and China’s enduring success in keeping infections close to zero has attracted many a curious eye to its pandemic governance model. 

A key narrative lens many have seen China’s accomplishment through its use of cutting-edge technology. 

Surveillance technologies

Harvard Business Review, for one, saw lessons to be learned from Chinese tech giants – its argument being that “the Covid-19 crisis […] has demonstrated the effectiveness of these models in China.”

Many who study politics, though, see in China’s surveillance technologies the early onset of an Aldous Huxley-esque scenario, and fear China will export a new model of digital, or technological, authoritarianism globally.

Whether in admiration or horror, most Western takes have honed in on the leading and efficient technology employed by the Chinese Communist Party-state, such as this Lowy Institute, Analysis:

The combination of retreating US leadership and the Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened China to expand and promote its tech-enabled authoritarianism as world’s best practice.

“The pandemic has provided a proof of concept, demonstrating to the CCP that its technology with ‘Chinese characteristics’ works, and that surveillance on this scale and in an emergency is feasible and effective.”

Through my own experience of being subjected to China’s “health codes” and my long-term familiarity with the country’s tech ecosystem, the author of this piece will venture a different conclusion in response to the nation’s use of surveillance tech.

China has pursued a policy of massive testing. Photo: Courtesy of Xinhua

China’s pandemic control is still rooted in the old regime, out of which the following question begs to be asked: if new technology is used in furtherance of old governance models, whose interests does all this improved efficiency actually serve?

The health code app, for example, asks the following:

  • The citizen’s name, ID card number, photo and address.
  • Contact details and personal movements in the last 14 days must also be included.
  • Any diagnoses such as fevers and contacts with potentially infectious persons is needed.
  • Even personal data, such as the legal representative of the company they belong to, is required. 

Access to all public spaces in China such as shops, hospitals and public transport now requires a green code. These spaces typically display a QR code at the entrance, which customers are required to scan with a mobile app loaded with their personal data.

The government has cloud access to these QR code records and can track everyone’s movements in public places so that when an outbreak happens, they can carry out rapid epidemiological tracing and impose isolation and testing on the people in question. 

This “grid-style” surveillance covers not only individuals’ daily health situations, but also their movements and activities.

Yet this social-control-at-all-costs model has come at a vast price in terms of human time and physical resources, and it is difficult to reach a rational reading of its efficiency and public benefit calculus.

War-like official narrative

Since the COVID-19 epidemic started, a war-like official narrative has dominated the public discourse about it. Take just one People’s Daily editorial from August, entitled The fight against coronavirus is forging a new psychological milestone for national rejuvenation (????????????????). It claimed: 

“Party, army, and all ethnicities nationwide are joined as one in an all-out effort, employing the strictest, most comprehensive and most thorough anti-virus measures, sounding the clarion call for a people’s war, a total war, a blockade war against the epidemic.”

The real-life impact of the barrage of war mobilization slogans is that it is not the invisible virus itself but the actual, infected, or potentially infected people who become the focus of the battle. 

“One slogan is as good as ten bullets,” an essay from the PLA National Defense University stated. 

“In the struggle against Covid-19 pneumonia, there are slogans adorning village walls, city LED displays, taxi screens, banners on pedestrian bridges, and advertising hoardings in metro stations. Discussing pandemic-related slogans is an important barometer for our success in propaganda mobilization in the digitized war of the future,” it said. 

The article goes on to cite a widely used slogan as a successful piece of propaganda: “Every person who keeps quiet when they get a fever is a class enemy lurking among the people.”

With this kind of class war framing, health code data serves to exclude particular individuals and groups from the definition of the “people” or the “us.” 

Guangdong Color Codes for tracking Covid-19. Image: Guangdong Government.

Besides moral condemnation, punishments for those on the receiving end of the struggle have included criminal penalties, being listed as uncreditworthy, and internet-based violence in the form of naming and shaming.

Privacy concerns are given very little weight in the face of these sledgehammer deterrent measures. In some parts of China, health codes are scanned when buying or swiping bus tickets.

If the passenger has any code other than green the ticket reader announces “abnormal health code” at high volume.

In this climate where every transmitter of the disease gets pilloried, even the innocent can end up in the crosshairs. In December 2020, the city of Chengdu released data on a young woman who had tested positive for Covid-19. The woman had been to numerous bars and nightclubs, creating a mass infection risk.

She was immediately doxed online with her full name, ID number, telephone number, and personal social media handles. She was put through the wringer with particular vitriol reserved for the fact she was a young woman who went to bars. It later turned out that the bar was in fact her workplace.

Taiwanese historian Wang Mingke argued in an essay, Witch-hunt Crisis – Humanistic Reflections on Covid-19, that in a climate of collective fear and anxiety, it is normal for there to be witch-hunts, and violence against suspects and internal enemies by those around them seeking scapegoats.

Fear and hostility

In his article, Wang mainly focuses on the fear and hostility caused by a sense of alienation brought about by globalization, for example, the sentiment targeting Chinese-Americans in the wake of Covid-19. 

However, in Chinese society, punishment is bound to continue because of the reinforcement of class struggle slogans and the search for internal enemies.

At the same time, “witch-hunts” will endure due to the gathering of large amounts of personal data. 

Even though China has just passed a personal information protection law, only time will tell whether this will protect the privacy of citizens against infringement by state agencies.

Liu Manyi is a former tech journalist based in Guangzhou.

This article first appeared in echowall on October 1. To read the full original version click on this link.

Echowall is a collaborative research platform based at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Chinese Studies in Germany.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.