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A Chinese astronaut holding a cell phone with a green health code. Illustrated for Echowall by Liang Shixin.

12:59 pm | October 1, 2021

Old Regime, New Tech

The technology behind China’s COVID-19 apps is neither homegrown nor cutting-edge, while pandemic response across the country still relies on the old governance model of social control through immense manpower.

By Liu Manyi

Quick Takes:

  • Technologies behind Chinese COVID-19  apps are not cutting-edge and China’s data surveillance is accompanied by the all-encompassing governance system with immense manpower to control the population.
  • To mobilize the fight against the pandemic, the official discourse uses class struggle language, which in practice leads to exclude particular individuals and groups from the definition of the “people” or the “us”.
  • For fear of losing their career, local officials are vying to invent the most stringent control measures to show political will, rather than weighing up public health or the public interest.

“Did they have the green health code for entering China?” When three Chinese astronauts returned to earth this 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 earliest adopter of surveillance technologies in response. Since early 2020, localities around China 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” (清零) 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 is its use of cutting-edge technology. 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 party-state, such as in this CSIS (Centre for Strategic & International Studies) commentary:

"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’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?

If new technology is used in furtherance of old governance models, whose interests does all this improved efficiency actually serve?

 

Low-Cost Tech, High-Cost Manpower

China's COVID-19 ‘health code’ (健康码 jiankang ma) was invented, so the official media narrative goes, by a Hangzhou police officer called Zhong Yi. Hangzhou is a national pilot city for the Ministry of Public Security’s Smart Cities and Big Data strategy. Zhong Yi himself is deputy head of sector for technology, informatization and computer application management at the Hangzhou Public Security Bureau, and was involved in developing a police surveillance system called The Urban Brain (chengshi danao) that amasses 15 billion data entries per day. Zhong and his team took only 3 days after the city’s first coronavirus case in February 2020 to develop an application that became known as the Hangzhou Health Code.

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Screenshot of a People’s Daily video on Zhong Yi and the invention of the Hangzhou Health Code. The slogans on the right read: “Beating Crime”, “Maintaining Safety”, and “Serving the People”.

The technology behind it wasn’t homegrown, but is simple enough: rapid collection of geolocation information on citizens’ movements, used in turn to track the spread of diseases and monitor the range of citizens’ activities. Geolocation is possible via the Call Detail Record (CDR) data accumulated by the all three cellular networks (China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom); when a local Chinese resident uses their phone, its signal location is picked up by this Big Data network. When there are no ongoing coronavirus cases, the system displays a green QR code. When an outbreak occurs, the authorities designate certain areas as medium or high-risk, and health codes turn orange or red for whoever lives, works in or transits those areas, the consequences of which include follow-up investigations and coronavirus nucleic acid tests (NAAT).

The health code app asks for the citizen’s name, ID card number, photo, address, contact details, personal movements in the last 14 days, any diagnoses such as fevers, any contacts they’ve had with potentially infectious persons, and even other personal data such as the legal representative of the company they belong to. After the citizen fills in this information, the authorities ask them to enable data cross-checks via their cellular operator. Other people can sometimes be added to the user’s mobile app such as elderly people or children who lack their own phones or ID cards.

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, at which point staff members’ phone screens will show if they’ve been in a medium or high-risk zone or if they’re close contacts of someone who has been ordered to isolate, and the staff member can immediately assess their “security grade”. The government has cloud access to these QR code scan 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 NAAT testing on the people in question. The Big Data scan records of people’s access to public places are uploaded to a government cloud server which can monitor hundreds of millions of people’s potential threat on a 24-hour basis. This “grid-style” surveillance covers not only individual’s daily health situations, but also their movements and activities.

Some years back, as life was becoming more data-heavy, the Chinese government rolled out various surveillance measures. A ‘real-name registration’ requirement was instituted for SIM cards, social media accounts, courier deliveries and online shopping. The Network Security Law took effect on 1 June 2017; Article 24 stipulates that network operators must require users to provide verified identity details. “Where the user does not provide their genuine ID data, the network operator must not provide relevant services to them.” This legal provision is generally seen as the bellwether for across-the-board network user verification in China.

Network surveillance, however, used to only be done online. It was the 2020 pandemic that expanded this government surveillance into real-life activity. Health codes have grown into China’s largest current O2O (online to offline) data collection funnel, used to monitor people’s movements and circulation.

At the other end of this funnel is China’s all-encompassing governance system. More than 500,000 village committees, 100,000 residents’ committees, and 8000 neighborhood offices (jiedao banshichu) combine to form the front-line units of an enormous multi-tier social governance process. These government staff have been entrusted with making the rollout of health codes happen.

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Access control in a Metro supermarket in China. Customers have to scan the QR code before the entrance. Photo by the author.

There are 6 million chain supermarket sites in China and seldom is a street corner without one of the country’s 110 million small retail outlets – corner shops, fruit shops, hairdressers. Unlike ID card scanners, which are expensive and take long to produce, health codes are obviously a low-cost measure which can be rolled out quickly nationwide. The retailer just needs to fill out a simple application to get their own specific health code, which can be printed on half a sheet of A4 paper and pasted at the entrance for customers to scan while entering. It falls to neighborhood offices, a community-level government entity, to verify the address data for the health code; send out staff to carry out awareness-raising and censorship, and ensure there is a health code displayed at every public space where transmission of the virus could possibly happen. Meanwhile, staff from residential communities are expected to question and record the details of citizens coming in and out, and make sure that no ‘issues’ occur in their particular residential zone.

It is to be stressed that pandemic control at the local level across China has employed a combination of data surveillance and human screening, with the aim of ensuring zero transmission.

For example, after an COVID-19 outbreak in Guangzhou in May 2021, the city set health codes to yellow for all persons who had passed through certain “key zones” or “key sites” and demanding that they obtain three consecutive negative results from NAAT tests over two days before they could get their green code back. (ChineseCenter for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rules designate several dozen venue types including docks, shopping centers and sports stadia as “key sites”). Guangzhou police officers were also sent to carry out spot checks, searches and tracing to find details of how the outbreak happened.

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Examples of the different colors of the Guangdong Health Code on the official website of the Guangdong government.

Medium and high-risk zones in Guangzhou were placed under sealed-off “grid-style management”. This included residential compounds which had seen at least one COVID-19 case (medium-risk) or more than 10 cases over 14 days or at least two concentrated outbreaks (high-risk). Residents of these sealed-off compounds were forbidden from leaving their homes, all businesses and other venues were ordered closed, and there was repeated community-wide NAAT testing. Police, judicial, and neighborhood authorities carried out 24-hour monitoring of the home isolation orders imposed on residents in these zones. For example, after 6 locally transmitted cases occurred in Guangzhou on 3 June of this year, 140,000 people were placed under stay-at-home orders, and could only get food supplies by ordering online or relying on government distribution. Guangzhou also applied a “trio” grid management approach, putting one community volunteer, one police officer and one medical professional together into groups. These “trios” were required to visit every single household in the sealed-off compound(s) and their tasks included order and stability, community surveillance, medical services, health monitoring, taking nucleic acid test swabs, and personnel micromanagement. A month after Guangzhou’s outbreak, the city had deployed a total of 60,000 police officers and over 10,000 “trios” to carry out community surveillance and verify epidemiological details.

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. For example, after an outbreak in the city of Nanjing in July 2021, 7 rounds of city-wide mass testing were carried out equating to 40 million NAAT tests, which unearthed a grand total of just 233 positive results. Being the provincial capital of Jiangsu, Nanjing was able to get other cities in the province to send medical staff and physical resources, unlike the nearby city of Yangzhou which saw a concentrated outbreak occur at a testing station with at least 50 people infected while queuing for their tests.

The Class Struggle Mentality

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”(抗疫斗争铸就民族复兴新的精神丰碑), which claims, “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 states, going on to say, “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.” 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”. And the former are sometimes not even infected, for example natives of Hubei province, where there was the earliest coronavirus outbreak in spring 2020; many Hubei natives suffered prejudice, discrimination, forced home isolation or evictions when they travelled for business, took up jobs elsewhere, or just returned to where they normally lived in other parts of China – all despite having green health codes from Hubei province.

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Pandemic control slogan in Tongzi village, Badong, Sichuan Province: “Every Hubei returnee who doesn’t report to authorities is a ticking time bomb”

As case numbers decreased within China, the “othering” narrative shifted its focus to people who had been abroad. A torrent of internet vitriol greeted people trying to come back home from work or study in other countries, comparing this act to "long-distance assassination". When ambassador to Moscow Zhang Hanhui was asked in a video interview in April 2020 whether Chinese students should return to the country from Russia, he replied that under current circumstances the safest thing to do was stay where they were living and not travel. He added that land border crossings with Russia would all stay closed until the pandemic was over, and warned, “some Chinese have tried to slip through and get back to China, leading to the virus being brought in; what they did is morally reprehensible.”

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 have been given very little weight in the face of these sledgehammer deterrent measures. In some parts of China health codes are scanned when bus riders board and swipe their tickets, and if the passenger has any code other than green the ticket reader announces “abnormal health code” at high volume.

Soon after the outbreak began, the Heilongjiang Supreme People’s Court issued an “Urgent Notice on Severely Cracking Down on Criminal Crimes Related to Epidemic Prevention and Control,” laying out 36 criminal offences in nine categories  

Here are the first three:

1 Those who use COVID-19 to make up and spread rumors, incite splittism, undermine national unity, or incite subversion of State power or overthrow the Socialist system […] can be sentenced to a maximum of fifteen years. 

2Deliberate spreading of the COVID-19 pathogen, endangering public safety,  […] the highest sentence is death. 

3Those who refuse quarantine, compulsory quarantine or treatment, causing the spreading of COVID-19 via their own negligence; maximum sentence is seven years if the circumstances are serious.  

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Trending search items on Sina Weibo. Number 1: (Ms.) Mao XX-ning (middle character of name redacted) formally accused of obstructing disease control

On July 21, 2021, a 64-year-old woman who lived in Nanjing arrived at her sister’s house in Yangzhou. Although nine positive COVID-19 cases had been discovered in Nanjing the day before, she didn’t report herself to the Neighborhood Committee as soon as she arrived, and she frequented a number of restaurants and mahjong centers. She became Yangzhou’s “Number 1 Patient” from whom cases spread throughout the community. As a result, the local Public Security opened a case against her of obstructing the prevention and control of infectious diseases and took her into criminal detention. When Yangzhou Public Security announced the news, internet comment sections exploded, and this quickly became the number one search item on the social media site Sina Weibo. Commenters railed against this senior woman, giving her the nickname “Poison Lady,” and demanding that severe penalties be imposed on her. 

Even the state broadcaster CCTV made calculated use of a few minutes of commentary airtime to criticize the woman:

"One person can be willful, but the consequences fall on a community. This incident is a warning; everything is interlinked when it comes to epidemic prevention and control, and it’s the responsibility of every citizen to comply with COVID prevention and control. This is a civic responsibility. Not complying is very serious: If you are socially irresponsible, you’ll end up in the dock."

Meanwhile Xinhuanet, the Xinhua News Agency website, ran cartoons poking fun at the older woman, and denouncing her behavior as “evil” that had to be “punished by the law.” 

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Doctor: “have you spent any time in medium or high-risk areas?”  Woman covered in virus: “No, no, no, I haven’t!” Source: Xinhuanet

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 young woman had been to numerous bars and nightclubs, creating a mass infection risk. The woman was immediately doxed online with her full name, ID number, telephone number, and personal social media handles. She was put through the wringer online, 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).

This “Chengdu woman case” led to a furore for some time. After media enquiries, Chengdu police quickly announced penalties against a man with the surname Wang who had shared information about the woman on Sina Weibo. And yet, just as an Economic Observer piece asks:

"How did the information get out? Was Wang its source, like in the police report? If he was, where did Wang get this information from? If he wasn’t, then who was the original source? It is very difficult for ordinary citizens to get private information related to the Chengdu woman or the investigation. The source was most likely a functional department or its partner entities, which means leaks originated from people charged with gathering, using or managing information in one part of the epidemic prevention chain."

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The trajectory on the “Chengdu woman” published by the city government in December 2020. Source: https://news.bjd.com.cn/jzh/2020/12/09/35346t121.html

Of course, nothing came of the pointed questions the article asked. Southern Metropolis Daily pointed, at the end of 2020, to at least nine public reports since the pandemic started of cases where details of patients’ families were leaked. The culprits were nurses, doctors, policemen, and village cadres. Why would those entrusted with gathering and managing this information leak it? 

Taiwanese historian Wang Mingke argues 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. 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, also whithin Chinese society, punishment is bound to continue because of the continual reinforcement of class struggle slogans and search for internal enemies, while 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, slated to be implemented in November, only time can tell whether this will protect citizen’s privacy against infringement by state agencies.  

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NAAT robot in Wuhan.

At the same time, State institutions use various formal and informal methods of control to encourage pre-emptive submissiveness among the people, for fear of being labelled as a “social degenerate” or being made a “target of vigilance” leading to being pilloried or ostracized. In the case of targeted mass coronavirus testing, those who do not actively submit to this process can be entered into the social credit system as untrustworthy people, with knock-on effects for their credit score, consumer restrictions and job prospects. Warnings, fines, and detentions can be meted out for various errant behaviors; the citizen could even risk a criminal conviction for ‘obstructing the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.’ Those in power encourage citizens to keep a close watch on and report on each other. For example, an “Announcement For Reporting Personnel Who Have Not Undergone Nucleic Testing,” issued by a neighborhood office in Yangzhou encourages people to report anyone who has failed to submit to the city-wide mass testing, with a reward up to 100 RMB (13 Euro) for verified tip-offs.

Local Protectionism and the Pressure for Officials

A common Western fallacy about China’s model is that it is a highly centralized place where things get done quickly and uniformly. The reality is messier. Health codes and pandemic prevention measures are by no means exceptions to this. Health codes were originally rolled out by local governments and developed by local IT companies. There is a profusion of different health code systems in various provinces and cities. By March 2020 almost a hundred phone mini-apps had been developed.

Some efforts have been made to get provinces to recognize each other’s health codes, for example in the Yangtze River Delta or between Beijing and the neighboring Hebei province, but we are still far from being able to use just one health code for all parts of the country. When travelers reach a new destination they often have to download a new app, or scan a WeChat or Alipay code, in order to display different local health codes. A common sight at airports, train stations, or in front of office buildings is groups of people taking off their masks to get their faces scanned, nervously holding their phones, and trying to scan codes and fill in forms while the system verifies them. Interestingly, the State Council actually laid out an “epidemic prevention health information code” (aka National Health Code) system all the way back in February 2020, aimed at superseding the different health codes that exist locally, and yet people are still having to use their local codes on a day-to-day basis. Official media reported in March 2021 that “right now there are some provinces that have a ‘one-for-all QR code,’ however the progress of this national integration work hasn’t been smooth”, going on to quote legal expert Hu Gongqun as saying “There are no technical obstacles to mutually recognizing health codes right now. At a deeper level, this recognition is a test of how willing local authorities are to solve problems.”  

Local governments are lukewarm about implementing a “one-for-all QR code,” partly for economic reasons: in Guangdong province, home of the internet giant Tencent, people scan health codes using WeChat, whereas in Zhejiang, where the Alibaba empire is based, citizens are encouraged to scan using the latter’s Alipay app. In addition, published specifications about the “one-for-all QR code” state that it needs data from the public health system, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the National Immigration Administration, civil aviation, rail transport and many other departments. All in all it requires many authorities to work together cross-regionally, but data in China is currently far from harmonized and shared nationwide – indeed there are many barriers between industries and regions. 

Without a doubt, the most important factor however is the link between a zero case record and local officials’ political ‘achievements’, by virtue of which official across the land hope to hold on to their jobs, and thus vie to impose harsher controls. For example the most politically sensitive area of all, Beijing Municipality announced in summer 2021, faced with mid- and high-risk areas in various provinces, “Strictly guard against death at all costs, using the strictest measures… to make sure the capital is safe.” Flights, rail and road transport links into Beijing from over twenty cities were abruptly cut, so that even people with green codes from those cities were banned from entering Beijing. The various management and control methods used by 31 provinces are available on a Chinese government website; whether someone can travel to a specific province is entirely a question of that specific destination’s coronavirus rules. Even if the traveler has followed those specific requirements, there is no guarantee that the latter won’t change once the former gets there. This kind of local capriciousness has been highly obstructive for travelers. In August 2021 for example, a few positive cases were detected in the city of Xiamen. Over in the south, Guangzhou city promptly decreed that travelers from low-risk areas in Xiamen had to provide not only a green health code but also a NAAT test results from the last 48 hours. When a friend of mine got tested in Xiamen and then set off for Guangzhou, there was nevertheless no issue at Guangzhou railway station and malls in the city, but he received multiple phone calls from different levels of the Guangzhou Public Security apparatus. It turned out that phone monitoring had turned up the fact that he had come from Xiamen, and the traveler was ultimately forced to do another COVID test in Guangzhou. No rare event - it is quite common for authorities that have laid down these rules to go beyond their scope in practice.  

An academic theory from the beginning of the 21st century posited the Chinese “Promotion Tournament Model,” by which political competition among local officials spurs the economy (through indicators like GDP), with economic competition flowing from political competition.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the central government has given virus control more importance as a criterion than the economy. With COVID-19 ravaging Hubei on 2 February, 2020, Hubei Daily reported 337 cases of government cadres being punished and six being sacked for failings in epidemic prevention, without stating the specific reasons for their punishments. With the Delta variant of COVID-19 hitting Guangzhou in late May and seventeen other provinces by July 2021, over seventy sackings or job reviews of public servants were announced in early August. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Party commented on August 12 that, “Since this round of the epidemic broke out, the Discipline Inspection and Supervision hierarchy has strengthened supervision and inspection around the key epidemic control tasks and links, promoted accountability involving executive responsibility, and laid down supervisory safeguards for epidemic control.”

On the one hand COVID-19 is an infectious disease which is not well understood. On the other hand there is the above hard-wired requirement for zero cases. This has caused local officials to invent multiple layers of epidemic measures, regardless of the economic cost. Political competition has translated into local governments vying to invent the most stringent control measures to show political will, rather than just weighing up public health and the public interest. Measures are often imposed suddenly, so that ordinary people are condemned to live in uncertainty, and small and private businesses are even more overwhelmed.

In 2021 with people back at work for some time and normal life more or less resumed within China, there has been yet more political pressure. Many Communist Party members have joined epidemic control measures at the local or community frontline. If there is even one COVID case, civil servants, State administrative workers and school staff are forbidden from travelling. Schools also demand that students return to their places of residence fourteen days before term starts, and parents are required to provide a copy of their health code every day. It is as if the zero-case policy has become a yardstick for “political score-keeping” and become officialdom’s highest calling, regardless of the social costs imposed.

After outbreaks in Guangzhou, Yangzhou, and Nanjing there were citizens whose health codes turned yellow and whose basic needs were neglected while they were in centralized quarantine or home isolation. An appeal for help was launched on Sina Weibo on July 24, 2021 because over 100 pregnant women had been prevented from going out for pre-natal tests due to their health codes turning yellow, and the mother who launched the appeal had had no luck after approaching the local community center, hospital, Public Security Bureau, Health Commission, and mayor’s office.

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                                  Media reports about Ruili, Nanjing, and Guangzhou launching mass nucleic acid.

Ruili, a border city in Yunnan with limited administrative and public health resources, resorted to cruder and more irrational means to reach the goal of zero cases. The city imposed four total lockdowns by August 2021 after imported cases were detected, meaning every person in its main urban areas was instructed to self-isolate at home, and schools were closed. Besides designated supermarkets, hospitals, and pharmacies, all businesses had to close down. Daily essentials were delivered by the government, and each lockdown lasted twenty days. This meant 200,000 people were not allowed to leave their homes, except to stand repeatedly in long lines for mass NAAT testing. Chinese media reported the story of a small boy in Ruili born in January 2020 who has already undergone 59 NAAT tests. This was reported  as ‘entertainment news’, heedless of the fact that his father claimed to have lost his job since the city was closed off, and of the suffering caused by children being continuously confined to the home. Furthermore, the local government had difficulties to meet citizens’ basic logistical needs for survival, so one of the latter appealed for help online, complaining that he had filled in multiple forms but was only assigned one pound of rice. A number of Ruili citizens started WeChat groups on August 17 to vent anger at pandemic control measures, and discussed launching street protests. At this point Ruili Public Security Bureau reacted with unusual speed, admonishing 11 people and giving them police cautions.

Living With the Virus? 

Faced with the rapidly-spreading delta variant, Chinese experts have pondered whether the country should take a more flexible approach. Renowned Shanghai infectious disease specialist Dr. Zhang Wenhong posted on Sina Weibo on July 29: “Most infectious disease experts in the world have accepted that COVID-19 is a virus that is going to stay around, and we must learn to live with this virus.” This earned a stinging riposte from Gao Qiang, China’s former health minister, on People’s Daily online at the beginning of August, vehemently asserting that “it would be impossible to co-exist with the virus”. Gao argued that it was a life-or-death struggle between humankind and the virus, and there could be no half measures; China would “terminate the virus.” Gao also argued that rather than virus variants being responsible for its resurgence in the West, Western individualism was ultimately at fault.

After Gao’s article went live, Dr. Zhang Wenhong was excoriated online as a “race traitor” and went silent for a long time. Shortly after the event, a teacher in Jiangxi province was detained by police for questioning for 15 days for a social media post backing up Zhang’s stance “co-existing with the virus”. This ostensible victory for the hardline zero-tolerance policy was in fact a manifestation of old-school social thought and discussion control. This kind of old ruling mentality, backed up by modern monitoring technologies, is highly efficient at suppressing diverse points of view. However, it will take a lot longer before we have a final answer as to whether this approach can be effective in the long term against the epidemic while not hampering normal economic and social life. The jury is very much still out.

October 1, 2021
Author
Liu Manyi

Liu Manyi is a former tech journalist based in Guangzhou.