The year 2020 will live in infamy in the memory of the global community, alongside the 1918 Influenza pandemic, the 2003 SARS epidemic, etc. The COVID – 19 virus, otherwise known as the Novel Corona Virus, has rapidly spread across the world, crippling economies and governments while there have been 827, 419 confirmed cases of infection across 206 countries / regions with the WHO estimates of 40,777 deaths being only those that have come to light. China alongside Italy, Spain and the United States have been the worst hit of all but all across the globe, countries have struggled to cope up with this pandemic and have employed various strategies from complete Lockdowns, restricting public movements, sealing off their national borders, etc. The Communist Party of China has been particularly aggressive in the employment of such measures, an effort that has been hailed to have been bearing fruits but subjected to much criticism for both statistical validity and excessive State intrusion. However, these measures needs to be analysed not just within the purview of preventing the spread COVID – 19 but rather in the background of an almost public sanctioned use of state surveillance that will remain permanently entrenched in the societal and institutional framework, instead of being only a temporary exception.
Michel Foucault in his treatise on state power and subject citizen asserts that governments’ fundamental use of power towards ‘governing’ its citizens is geared towards framing the choices and actions of citizens in a single mold and that all forms of either coercion or consensus building methods fall within this objective. The world has undergone fundamental changes since then and with the introduction of digital landscapes in the introduction, there has been incremental rises in State control and its intrusion in the lives of people as well as societal regulations. China has been at the forefront of this phenomena, having employed and intensified its control over its ethnic populations, both in the Han dominated regions as well as in its ethnic minority communities in Tibet and East Turkistan / Xinjiang.
The discussion over China’s regressive state control apparatuses and violation of human rights through its surveillance networks such as the Great Firewall, surveillance grids, etc. is an ongoing process, with many countries, international organizations and individuals expressing their concerns to almost no avail, as the CCP continues to tighten its grip over its 1.5 billion population. What is of concern in the present moment is as the global community remains immersed in the panic stricken atmosphere generated by the COVID – 19 pandemic, China’s strengthening surveillance grid has been viewed in a positive light of viral prevention yet, as witnessed in the WHO’s increasing pandering to China’s policies, very little attention has been paid to the adverse effects on it population’s rights to privacy as well as the freedom of its ethnic minorities.
Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, remarked that “The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China”. Since January, the Chinese State has ramped up its surveillance network. According to reports by New York Times, and Bloomberg, Sense Time, an AI firm in China, is being deployed in multiple cities in order to identify people with elevated temperature, as well as those who aren’t wearing face masks. Another company known as Megyii has rolled out a similar product in Beijing that, according to the company, serves as an “AI-enabled temperature detection solution that integrates body detection, face detection and dual sensing via infrared cameras and visible light.” Similarly, on March 7, Hanwang Technology Ltd announced the completion of its software that could recognize people with elevated temperatures, drawing up data on the individual’s personal identification.
One of the most intrusive software that has been churned out due to this nexus between the State and private sector is the Alipay Health Code, a term coined by the official news media, a venture launched in collaboration with the tech giant AliBaba. The people are assigned a health code; green, yellow or red and the system is being rolled out nationally. The connection between law officials and personal data is unclear but according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, law enforcement authorities were a crucial partner in the system’s development. Reports indicate that the location of individuals are being sent or shared through their phone to local authorities. In many parts of China, it has become impossible to travel without receiving the green sign of being infection free.
Reports by the BBC notes that mobile networks too have been roped in this spree of surveillance upbuild. China Unicom and China Telecom — both state-owned telco operators — are asking people to put in the last few digits of their ID or passport number, which will then be used to track a person’s whereabouts. The state media channel Global Times released a video recently highlighting the novel use of drones to aid in this venture, tracking people and asking them to wear their masks.
The surveillance setup that has followed the COVID – 19 outbreak has received support from the Chinese citizenry as well as International organizations such as the WHO. However, experts warn that these measures could be made permanent even after the pandemic has been placed under control. Maya Wang in the interview with CNBC notes:
The Party has increasingly treated ‘stability maintenance’ — a euphemism for social control — as an overarching priority, and devoted enormous resources to security agencies for monitoring dissidents, breaking up protests, censoring the internet, and developing and implementing mass surveillance systems,” she wrote in a recent paper … I think there are signs that the coronavirus outbreak, like these events above, serve as a catalyst and a boost for China’s development in mass surveillance systems. Once these systems are in place, those involved in its developments — particularly companies with money to be made — argue for their expansion or their wider use, a phenomenon known as ‘mission creep.’ What initially started as a system to crack down on crime — which is already a dubious and vague enough justification to encompass political crimes in China — is now used for other purposes including for fighting the coronavirus outbreak
Nigel Inkster, senior advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes the Chinese Communist Party will “double down on existing techniques for social control and narrative management,” using the virus outbreak as a way of sharpening its surveillance tools. “To us this will seem like pathological learning, but to a regime focused above all on retaining power, it will appear logical . Once the dust has settled, reviews will be conducted and adjustments made. I don’t think they will need more capabilities than what they already have but they will want to fine-tune them and work towards greater systems integration.”
Many of these technologies require users to register with their name, national identification number and phone number. Authorities have also sourced data from phone carriers, health and transport agencies and state-owned firms. As there is a lack of transparency on how such huge amount of data is being used by the officials, fears of privacy violations and state intrusions remains paramount. Such examples among many are troubling for various reasons, primarily for a post COVID – 19 future and the inclusion of such technologies and data gathering spools in the State’s ongoing push to curtail and control the free flow of information as well as maintain a tight clampdown on all dissents. Last year’s Hong Kong Protests were primarily conducted and gained a measure of success because the protestors were masked and could not identified by police authorities. The face recognition technologies of Megyii and Hangwang Technology Ltd. Would effectively take away this sense of security from all future protests, leading to the strengthening of the State’s hold on its authoritarian power. The implications of the Alipay Health Code for the people living in China and particularly it ethnic minorities is a matter of concern since the State could effectively track, mark and curtail the movements of any and all persons deemed as ‘unfavorable’ by the authorities. The Uigyur and Tibetan population have continued to suffer under such repressive conditions and the inclusion of technology would only serve to exacerbate the situation, which already has seen a massive rise in monitoring of the population by armed officials as well as a never ending cloud of security measures.
The CCP has invested billions of dollars in the upkeep and improvement of its surveillance grid, to the detriment of the people living under its control .Human Rights Watch recently listed Tibet as the second least free region in the world. The Uigyur population continues to face threats to their survival with mass detentions, heavy armed presence of the army and intrusion in their personal being recurring events. The COVID – 19 situation has been both a boon and a bane to the CCP but the former is of worrying concern since the development and aggressive introduction of surveillance technologies in society has received international and public sanction yet the far reaching consequences of such incidents needs to be analyzed in lieu of the regressive policies of the State vis – a- vis its authoritarian control over its population.
*Tenzing Wangdak is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. He is a TSP Alumna and graduated from New York University. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.