In China, stringent rules instituted to prevent the spread of COVID have given the CCP a whole new set of ways to monitor and control people. A human rights lawyer named Xie Yang learned this the hard way back in November. He wanted to visit the mother of an activist named Zhang Zhan who had been sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing China’s handling of the COVID outbreak. Suddenly, his health code flipped to red, meaning he couldn’t travel.
It turns out that being able to quarantine people is a handy thing for an authoritarian state to be able to do.
Emboldened by their successes in stamping out Covid, Chinese officials are turning their sharpened surveillance against other risks, including crime, pollution and “hostile” political forces. This amounts to a potent techno-authoritarian tool for Mr. Xi as he intensifies his campaigns against corruption and dissent.
The foundation of the controls is the health code. The local authorities, working with tech companies, generate a user’s profile based on location, travel history, test results and other health data. The code’s color — green, yellow or red — determines whether the holder is allowed into buildings or public spaces. Its use is enforced by legions of local officials with the power to quarantine residents or restrict their movements…
Residents sign up for the system by submitting their personal information in one of a range of apps. The health code is essentially required, because without it, people cannot enter buildings, restaurants or even parks. Before the pandemic, China already had a vast ability to track people using location data from cellphones; now, that monitoring is far more expansive.
The front lines of this effort to control every individual are what China calls “grid workers.” This state media article praises their effectiveness at literally checking in with every household within their grid:
Climbing 20 buildings and checking more than 300 households in one day is a common practice for He Yushan, a grid worker in Xincheng Community, Cuqiao Street, Wuhou District, Chengdu City, Sichuan Province.
The grid that He Yushan is in charge of has 7 courtyards and 516 households, including 1,610 rental houses, with a permanent population of nearly 4,000 people, and the workload of investigation is heavy. After the outbreak, he was often busy until late at night, replying to hundreds of WeChat messages every day, and putting his mobile phone next to his pillow when he slept.
Starting from January 23, He Yushan, together with community staff and other grid workers, went door-to-door to “climb the grid” every day to check for people with fever, and went to the streets to register people who had recently returned from key areas in the jurisdiction. Personnel information to ensure that the investigation work “does not miss one household, many people”.
The epidemic is the order, the prevention and control is the responsibility, and the grid is the battlefield.
But COVID isn’t the only thing the CCP is fighting. So turning these tools to control the movement of people with views they don’t approve seems like an obvious next step.
Wang Yu, a well-known human rights lawyer, says she believes the authorities have weaponized the health code to try to stop her from working. In November, as she was returning to Beijing after a work trip, she tried to log her travel on her health code app, as required. But when she selected Jiangsu Province, the drop-down menu listed only one city, Changzhou, where she had not been and which had just recorded several infections. If she chose that, she would most likely be refused entry to Beijing.
In the past, security officers had to physically follow her to interfere with her work. Now, she worries, they can restrict her movements from afar.
Once a government gains additional power over citizens, it rarely wants to give it up. And in China, there’s no one in a position to change Xi Jinping’s mind. In fact, disagreeing with him in public is the sort of thing that could get you quarantined if not arrested.
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