Chinese authorities accused of using anti-Covid technologies to stifle social movements –

In China, several incidents suggest that the authorities are using anti-Covid health pass systems for political purposes, in particular to stifle social protests. Facilitated by the pandemic, these drifts are part of a long-standing dynamic on the part of Beijing.

From the first months of the pandemic, China was the first to deploy a vast health tracking system, a key tool in its “zero-Covid” strategy. Downloaded to mobile phones, an application allows the authorities to control the movements of the population and the risk of spreading the virus.

A Chinese health pass pictured in Hong Kong in February 2022. [Bertha Wang – AFP]Thus, for more than two years, to go anywhere, you have to take out your mobile phone and present, or even scan, your famous QR code. If this appears in green, it certifies that the person has undergone the necessary PCR tests, that they have not been in contact with positive cases or have not traveled to a risk area. Otherwise, the code turns red, synonymous for its holder with immediate exclusion from public places and forced quarantine.

One could fear a drift linked to such technology: it seems to have occurred this week. Several disgruntled customers of a financially troubled bank in rural Henan Province have come forward to demand their money. On site, they saw their green code change color for no apparent reason and found themselves trapped.

Videos published online show, for example, individuals dumbfounded after being forcibly taken and detained in quarantine hotels. The latter demand explanations in vain, faced with a surprisingly timely coincidence. How come their codes changed color just as they were going to the bank’s headquarters?

Disturbing testimonies

Authorities deny manipulating health codes. But many elements attest to the contrary. Some bank customers who live on the other side of the country have also had their code color changed. “With my wife, we haven’t left Beijing for months, we’re there right now. All our trips, we do them together. But it turns out that I have an account in this bank in Henan. And the code on my phone is red while that of my companion is normal”, testifies a resident of the capital, 700 kilometers from Henan.

Another client testifies directly to the manipulation of the authorities. Having come from the neighboring province of Hubei to claim his due from the bank, he had no problem presenting his QR code when departing from Wuhan airport. When he arrived in Zhengzhou, the pass had turned red. “According to the information under the code, I was returning from a stay abroad and had not completed the mandatory quarantine. But it was wrong! I live in Hubei, I had been there for weeks “, he explains.

“Finally, I proposed on my own to go back. They immediately accepted and told me that they could change my red code to green code immediately. Once my return ticket was purchased, my code changed , I had nothing to do”, he continues.

Crisis communication in Beijing

There are many such stories. Several lawyers, activists and dissidents have mentioned similar incidents in recent months, to the point that the state media have seized on the Henan story to denounce abuses, even causing the central power to react. “Health codes should not be used for anything other than fighting the pandemic,” warned an official in Beijing.

But this media coverage and official outrage are more akin to a crisis management tactic in the face of the outcry over the case, said Maya Wang, a researcher specializing in digital surveillance for Human Rights Watch. “The authorities pretend to react but in the end, the protests will be controlled, censored or repressed and will die of themselves”, she anticipates.

dark future

The researcher recalls that social control efforts in China largely predate the pandemic: “Society is completely deprived of levers to exert pressure. This absence of levers is voluntary: this is how power has structured the social environment.” And she fears that these excesses will multiply with new technological tools.

“The pandemic was really a turning point in the deployment of technological tools by the Chinese government. It gave a boost to technologies that were already being put in place. So even if the health code eventually came to disappear, the underlying practice of collecting data and managing it via algorithms, digital surveillance of public places or controls of the movements and interactions of individuals, all of this will not disappear, on the contrary.

In a China where the Communist Party of Xi Jinping seeks to cement its base by nipping in the bud any form of protest via technological control tools, “the future for Chinese citizens is therefore bleak”, deplores Maya Wang.

Michael Peuker/jop

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