‘The New Normal’: China’s Excessive Coronavirus Public Watch May Be Here to Stay | Coronavirus

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Over the past two months, Chinese citizens have had to adjust to a new level of government intrusion.

To enter your apartment or workplace, you need to scan a QR code, write down your name and ID number, temperature, and recent travel history. Telecom operators track people’s movements while social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report other people who may be sick. Some cities give people rewards for notifying their sick neighbors.

Meanwhile, Chinese companies are deploying facial recognition technology that can detect high temperatures in a crowd or signal citizens not wearing face masks. A range of apps use citizens’ personal health information to alert others to their proximity to infected patients or if they have been in close contact.

State authorities, in addition to locking down entire cities, have put in place a myriad of security measures in the name of containing the coronavirus outbreak. From senior officials to local community agents, those who enforce the rules repeat the same refrain: it is an “extraordinary time” feichang shiqi, requiring extraordinary measures.

As the number of new infections in China declines, having infected more than 80,000 and killed more than 3,000, residents and observers are questioning how far these new measures are here to stay.

“I don’t know what will happen when the epidemic is over. I dare not imagine it, ”said Chen Weiyu, 23, who works in Shanghai. Every day when Chen goes to work, she has to submit a daily health check to her company, scan a QR code, and register in order to enter the office park.

“Surveillance is already everywhere. The epidemic has just made this surveillance more evident, which we normally do not see in ordinary times, ”she said.

Others are more adamant about the future. Wang Aizhong, an activist based in Guangzhou, said, “This epidemic undoubtedly provides yet another reason for the government to monitor the public. I don’t think the authorities will rule out maintaining this after the outbreak. “

“When we go out or stay in a hotel, we can feel a pair of eyes looking at us all the time. We are completely exposed to government surveillance, ”he said.

Experts say the virus, which emerged in Wuhan in December, gave authorities a pretext to speed up the massive collection of personal data to track citizens, a dangerous prospect given the country lacks strict data laws. personal.

“This is the drift of the mission,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. According to Wang, the virus is likely to be a catalyst for a further expansion of the surveillance regime, as were major events such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing or the Shanghai Expo in 2010. “The techniques of mass surveillance became more permanent after these events, ”she said.

“With the coronavirus outbreak, the idea of ​​risk scoring and movement restrictions quickly became a reality,” she said. “Over time, we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability for people to react. “

Many Chinese residents view the additional layers of public oversight as additional bureaucratic hurdles, more frustrating than sinister, that once again demonstrate the government’s ineffectiveness in handling the outbreak.

China’s surveillance net, while proudly promoted by the authorities, is full of loopholes. A former detainee infected with the virus managed to travel from Wuhan to Beijing last month, long after the quarantine measures came into effect, sparking widespread criticism of how she left.

Citizens are particularly critical of a system called Health Code, which users can sign up for through Alipay or WeChat, which assigns individuals one of three color codes based on their travel history, time spent in outbreak hot spots and exposure to potential carriers of the virus. The software, used in more than 100 cities, will soon allow people to check the colors of other residents when entering their identification numbers.

A resident complained to Weibo about crossing Hubei without stopping, but his color code changed from green to yellow, indicating he should be quarantined. “I can’t even go out and buy bread or water,” said another resident of Jiangsu Province, after his code inexplicably turned yellow from a work trip.

Many have described the app as “for appearances”, or xingshi zhuyi, a way for lower level officials to impress their superiors with additional restrictions on citizens.

“I have a health code, a pass for my residential complex and another health certificate and I still cannot enter my house,” said one commentator. “This is garbage. Please free us ordinary people, ”said another.

Low-tech security measures have been used as much as high-tech measures. An army of workers guard the entry points to public spaces, ordering pedestrians to record their information or questioning residents about their recent movements. Religious sites like mosques have been closed. Many cities and counties have banned group gatherings, including breakfasts.

In February, officials in Sichuan Province dispersed a group playing mahjong and forced participants to read an apology, captured on video. “We were wrong. We promise there will be no next time and that we will watch the others as well,” the group of 10 said, their heads bowed slightly.

Other videos posted online showed local officials pushing residents to the ground not to wear face masks or tie a man to a pole. Local law enforcement in Wuhan was recently sacked after a video posted online of them beating a man for selling vegetables on the streets.

An article from the state-run Xinhua News Agency reminded citizens last week that those who violate virus prevention and control measures could face up to three years in prison, and up to seven years for particularly serious cases. , as provided for in the Chinese penal code.

“Intrusive surveillance is already the ‘new normal’. The question for China is what, if any, is a level of surveillance that the population refuses to tolerate, ”said Stuart Hargreaves, associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, commenting on this. focusing on privacy and information law.

Some fear that the current measures will continue in part because citizens are getting used to them more and more. Alex Zhang, 28, who lives in Chengdu, refers to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s theory on the state of emergency, and how measures taken during the state of emergency can be extended.

“This kind of governance and thinking in dealing with the epidemic can also be used for other issues – like media, citizen journalists or ethnic conflicts. Because this method has already been used, citizens will accept it. It is becoming normal, ”he said.

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang


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