Coronavirus a new ‘tool’ for China to increase mass surveillance?
According to experts, the Chinese authorities are increasing the mass collection of personal data to track citizens in the name of virus. Telecom operators in China are keeping a check on people’s movements and social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be ill.
Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19, in China’s Wuhan, there have been several reports on how the Chinese government censored any content about the spread of virus and how its initial ignorance, slow response and an eventual cover-up about the killer virus led to the deaths of thousands in the country. But China, under Xi Jinping, lives in delusion of its supremacy over other nations, and in order to maintain this belief, it has reached a new level of intrusion into the lives of Chinese citizens. And all this is happening in the name of “tackling coronavirus”.
How China is increasingly intruding into lives of its citizens
In China, now entering 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. Telecom operators are keeping a check on people’s movements while social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be ill. Some Chinese cities are even offering people rewards for informing on sick neighbours.
Many firms in China are coming up with facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures in a crowd or flag citizens not wearing a face mask. There is a variety of apps that use the personal health information of citizens to alert others of their proximity to infected patients or whether they have been in close contact.
In the name of curbing the outbreak, Chinese authorities have locked down entire cities and have enforced several security measures. The Covid-19 has now spread to over 120 countries and killed more than 4,600 people across the globe.
China state media slams Western countries
As the number of new infections in China seem to be falling, after having infected more than 80,000 people and killing over 3,100, the country’s state media hit out at Western countries for “showing their true colours” amid the raging pandemic.
“Some Western media outlets have blamed China for the virus' going global and made a big deal out of China's ‘delays’ during the outbreak's initial stage. Now that the novel coronavirus crisis continues to unfold across the world, it's obvious to see which country's handling has been more efficient and effective,” said the Global Times in a piece written by Wang Peng.
The article says that “the changing situation has revealed the true features of some Western countries and their media outlets. Prior to the lockdown of Wuhan in January, certain Western media outlets accused China of ‘letting’ the virus spread in China and being responsible for its spread beyond its border. But right now, it is hard to find criticisms over some Western countries' inaction amid the increasingly serious situation”.
“Linking up all the West's words and deeds over the past two months, one may find them ridiculous and pathetic. These self-contradictory and double-standard moves with no regard to basic facts expose their immorality and irresponsibility,” stated the article.
Amid China’s increased monitoring, there are many in the country who are questioning how much of the new measures are here to stay. According to experts, the virus has given Chinese authorities a pretext for accelerating the mass collection of personal data to track citizens, the Guardian reported.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s mission creep. 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, said Maya. “The techniques of mass surveillance became more permanent after these events,” she added.
“With the coronavirus outbreak the idea of risk scoring and restrictions on movement quickly became reality. Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability of people to push back.”
The government’s men are manning entry points to public spaces, ordering pedestrians to log their information or questioning residents about their recent movements. Religious sites have been closed. Many cities and counties have banned group gatherings, including small dinner parties.
Other videos posted online have shown local officials pushing residents to the ground for not wearing a face mask or tying a man to a pole. Local law enforcement officials in Wuhan were recently fired after a video of them beating a man for selling vegetables on the street was posted online.
China’s official state news agency Xinhua last week reminded citizens that those who violate virus prevention and control measures could be subject to three years in prison, and up to seven for particularly serious cases, as outlined in the country’s criminal code.
Chinese whistleblower doctor's death
But it seems hard for Chinese people to forget the anger and pain they felt after the death from COVID-19 of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was reprimanded by public security officers for trying to warn colleagues about the outbreak. After Li’s death, the phrase “We want freedom of speech” was even trending on Chinese social media for several hours before the posts were deleted.
In a chat group on December 30, Li had warned his fellow medical professionals about the new virus. But later he was accused of “rumour-mongering” and officials either ignored or played down the risks well into January.
Meanwhile, a Wuhan doctor who posted information about the new coronavirus on social media that was shared by Li has broken her silence, saying she was muzzled by authorities for raising the alarm without their permission at the start of the outbreak.
Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, told Chinese magazine People that she posted an image of a diagnostic report on social network WeChat on December 30, showing that the patient had a pneumonia infection caused by a Sars-like coronavirus.
It was published on this Tuesday but later deleted from the magazine’s WeChat account, prompting angry internet users to repost the article on other platforms. It also coincided with President Xi’s first visit to Wuhan since the crisis began, during which he praised residents for their hard work and sacrifices.
Ai told the magazine the day she sounded the alarm, she was told by her superiors that Wuhan’s health commission had issued a directive that medical workers were not to disclose anything about the virus, or the disease it caused, to avoid sparking a panic. Soon after, the hospital reminded all staff that public disclosure related to the illness was forbidden.
“If I could have known (how the outbreak would turn out) I would have told everyone, even though I was warned,” she said. “I have thought many times – if only time could be turned back.”