Chinese citizens fear excessive public monitoring even after COVID-19 goes away


Chinese citizens have had to adjust to a new level of government intrusion while it combats the coronavirus outbreak. Right now, getting into one’s apartment compound or workplace requires scanning a QR code, writing down one’s name and ID number, temperature and recent travel history.

Meanwhile, telecom operators track people’s movements using their mobile phones and by law must provide this data to the government. Social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be sick.

Chinese companies are meanwhile rolling out facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures in a crowd or flag citizens not wearing a face mask. A range of apps use the personal health information of citizens to alert others of their proximity to infected patients or whether they have been in close contact.

State authorities, in addition to locking down entire cities, have implemented a myriad of security measures in the name of containing the coronavirus outbreak. From top officials to local community workers, those enforcing the rules repeat the same refrain: this is an “extraordinary time” requiring extraordinary measures.

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

“I don’t know what will happen when the epidemic is over. I don’t dare 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, as well as scan a QR code and register in order to enter the office park.

“Monitoring is already everywhere. The epidemic has just made that monitoring, which we don’t normally see during ordinary times, more obvious,” she said.

Others are more emphatic about the future. Wang Aizhong, an activist based in Guangzhou, said: “This epidemic undoubtedly provides more reason for the government to surveil the public. I don’t think authorities will rule out keeping this up after the outbreak.”

Experts say the virus, which emerged in Wuhan in December, has given authorities a pretext for accelerating the mass collection of personal data to track citizens, a dangerous prospect given that the country does not have stringent laws governing personal data.

“It’s mission creep,” 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 major events like the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing or the Shanghai Expo in 2010 were. “The techniques of mass surveillance became more permanent after these events,” she said.

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

Many Chinese residents see the extra layers of public monitoring as additional bureaucratic hurdles, more frustrating than sinister, that further demonstrate the government’s ineffectiveness in handling the outbreak.

“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, an associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s law school, focusing on privacy and information law.

Some worry current measures will continue in part because citizens are growing accustomed to them. Alex Zhang, 28, who lives in Chengdu, refers to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s theory on the state of exception, and how measures taken during a state of emergency can be prolonged.

“This type of governance and thinking for dealing with the epidemic can also be used for other issues – like the media, citizen journalists or ethnic conflicts. Because this method has been used before, citizens will accept it. It becomes normal,” he said. (Source: The Guardian)