Chinese authorities accused of using anti-COVID tech to stifle social movements –

In China, several incidents suggest that the authorities are using the anti-Covid medical pass systems for political purposes, in particular to suppress social protests. These pandemic-driven drifts are part of a longstanding dynamic on the part of Beijing.

Since the first months of the pandemic, China has been the first to deploy an extensive health tracking system, a key tool in its zero-Covid strategy. An application downloaded to mobile phones allows the authorities to monitor population movements and the risk of the virus spreading.

Chinese medical passport in Hong Kong in February 2022. [Bertha Wang – AFP]Thus, for more than two years, in order to go somewhere, you need to take out your mobile phone and present, or even scan your famous QR code. If it is displayed in green, it confirms that the person has passed the required 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, which for its owner is synonymous with immediate exclusion from public places and forced quarantine.

One can be wary of a drift associated with such technology: it seems to have happened this week. Several disgruntled customers at a financially troubled bank in rural Henan province demanded their money. On the spot, they saw that their green code had changed color for no apparent reason and were trapped.

Videos posted online, for example, show people stunned after being forcibly transported and placed in quarantine hotels. The latter demand an explanation in vain, faced with a surprisingly timely coincidence. Why did their codes change color as they made their way to the bank’s headquarters?

Disturbing evidence

Authorities deny manipulating health codes. But many elements suggest otherwise. Some bank customers living on the other side of the country have also changed the color of the code. “My wife and I have not left Beijing for months, now we are there. We make all our trips together. But it turns out I have an account with this bank in Henan. the phone is red, but my companion’s is normal,” testifies a resident of the capital, located 700 kilometers from Henan.

Another client directly testifies to the manipulations of the authorities. Arriving from the neighboring province of Hubei to collect his money from the bank, he had no problem presenting his QR code upon departure from Wuhan airport. When he arrived in Zhengzhou, the pass turned red. “According to the information on the code, I was returning from a stay abroad and did not pass the mandatory quarantine. But it was wrong! I live in Hubei Province, I have been there for weeks,” he explains.

“In the end, I myself offered to return. They immediately agreed and said they could change my red code to green code immediately. After 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 alluded to similar incidents in recent months, to the point where state media seized on the Henan story to denounce the abuses, even drawing backlash from the central government. “Health codes should not be used for anything other than fighting a pandemic,” a Beijing official warned.

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

dark future

The researcher recalls that attempts at social control in China largely preceded the pandemic: “Society is completely devoid of leverage to exert pressure. This lack of leverage is voluntary: this is how the authorities structured the social environment.” And she fears that these excesses will multiply with the advent of new technological tools.

“The pandemic has truly become a turning point in the deployment of technology tools by the Chinese government. It gave impetus to technologies that had already been introduced. and managing it with the help of algorithms, digital surveillance of public places or control over the movements and interactions of people, all this will not disappear, but vice versa.

In China, where Xi Jinping’s Communist Party seeks to strengthen its base by nipping in the bud any form of protest with technological control tools, “therefore, the future of Chinese citizens is bleak,” Maya Wang laments.

Michael Peuker / Jop