HONG KONG—People in today’s China are only too aware that algorithms crawl over all social media posts, and that multiple cameras are aimed at all street corners. But the coronavirus epidemic and its fallout have heightened the sense of dystopian menace as never before.
Every phone and its user is trackable, no matter how careful you may be with your digital footprints, and new tools built by Tencent and Alibaba, two of China’s biggest tech companies, have made painfully obvious the tight surveillance experienced by people all over the country.
There’s a contradiction unfolding throughout China with an inconsistent message coming down from the top: Maybe you should remain in quarantine, but really you should get back to work, and then go spend your money.
President Xi Jinping wants people back at their places of employment immediately, but doesn’t want the virus to explode again. Top political leaders declared this week that consumption, which “has been suppressed or frozen” must be “unleashed.”
Ever since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in December, Xi has emphasized the need to maintain China’s status as a global economic powerhouse, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by cadres under his direction.
On Feb. 11, Cong Liang, the secretary general of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, an agency that manages the country’s economy, articulated a paradox hard to resolve. “If we do not get back to work,” he said, “epidemic control won’t be sustainable.” For many CCP officials, falling in line with Xi's order is of paramount importance, logic be damned.
Putting hundreds of millions of people back to work in factories and offices is fundamentally at odds with efforts to contain the spread of a rapidly transmissible disease. But it’s easy to make sweeping declarations while viewing the situation from Beijing.
Big tech is supposed to square this circle, helping to reboot the economy without rebooting the disease, steering people back to their workplaces, for better or worse, under the cold stare of all-pervasive algorithms.
Tencent is implementing a QR code system that tracks people who use public transportation. Anyone boarding a bus, taxi, or subway car needs to scan the code, linking their identities with that vehicle. And if they later turn out to be a patient with COVID-19, everyone who has shared a ride with them is notified.
It’s an imperfect system, one that backtracks to issue warnings rather than actively preventing the dissemination of the disease, but it has a precedent. Alibaba, employing its Alipay electronic wallet, which has 900 million users in China, has been assigning colors to people—green meaning clear for passage in public areas, yellow demanding seven days of quarantine, and red for 14 days of isolation.
So, whether you can leave a city, or even your apartment complex, depends on Alibaba’s algorithm.
But your color code is not determined by trained medical personnel. Often enough, the system flags people who aren’t exhibiting any symptoms and seem to be in perfect health.
In physical space, other (sometimes faulty) instruments are being used to carry out Beijing’s directives.
The police have adopted new tools to fortify their arsenal. On the streets of Shanghai, they wear headsets with thermal camera attachments to locate people who may be running fevers. In other parts of the country, they have dispatched drones to monitor public areas, broadcasting messages to steer people indoors. A video publicizing the presence of these eyes in the sky is meant to be cute and folksy, but it is just about as creepy as it could be.
“The world should thank China”
Some officials who need to execute Xi’s diktats are cautious about his push.
Last week, Feng Huiqiang, an official with the Guangdong Health Commission in the southeastern quadrant of China, said that migrant workers, who staff factories that export goods to all corners of the globe, “should not rush to return to Guangdong.”
But Xi won’t have any of that. For the past two weeks, he has been making calls to world leaders, repeating one talking point over and over again: “The fundamentals of the economy [in China] will remain strong in the long run.”
That may ultimately be the case. But for now, people in China are cautious, precisely because trust in the government has deteriorated as rapidly as COVID-19 has spread among the population.
While some parts of the country, like Hubei province, where the virus that causes COVID-19 likely originated, are on forced lockdown, people elsewhere in China are choosing to stay at home and limit their time in public places. They’re doing so because they believe this will mitigate opportunities for the coronavirus to propagate—at home and abroad.
Despite the ruling party’s reassurances and the tech companies’ dystopian tools, there is widespread confusion about the immediate future.
Several people I have spoken to, all of whom have been working from home in the past weeks, have said that they’re not even sure what conditions need to be in place for them to feel safe about commuting and traveling again.
Another part of Beijing’s solution for this uncertain future is self-congratulation combined with a transparently cynical effort to rewrite the past.
On Wednesday, state-run media outlet Xinhua ran an article titled “Rightfully, the world should thank China,” along with a photograph of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and others praying in the vice president’s office in the White House.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, claimed on the same day that the coronavirus’ origin may not be China at all. Meanwhile China Daily called Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market the place that was “once believed to be the origin of the novel coronavirus,” thus paving over the fact that about two-thirds of the first batch of COVID-19 patients were linked to this location.
The revisionist bureaucrats of the Chinese state even make veiled accusations that the U.S. is the source of COVID-19—or a new epicenter in the making, with science skeptic Pence in charge of the outbreak's containment. Meanwhile, they continue to refine surveillance structures using the preservation of public health as cover.
Once new systems are in place, it is unlikely that they will be taken offline—an accidental boon for China’s major tech companies and the Chinese Community Party, who are now that much closer to knowing everything about everyone in the country.