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As China doubles down on COVID, some have had enough | Politics News


A few months ago, a box was left outside the door of Yu Ting Xu’s apartment*, 34, in Beijing. Inside, there is an electronic monitoring wristband and requires her to wear the wristband at all times as part of the fight against COVID-19 in her residential area.

While telling his story via video call, Yu shuffles the content in the background. When she returned to the screen, she was holding up her wristband, which looks like a smartwatch but has a plain white plastic surface instead of the screen.

“I’ve never worn it,” she said.

“I have accepted the lockdown, mandatory COVID-19 testing and health codes, but this is like surveillance just for the sake of surveillance.”

The bracelet is a last resort for Yu, one of a growing number of citizens concerned about the Chinese government’s motives for widespread use of COVID-19-related technology.

She told Al Jazeera: “I fear that the COVID-19 strategy is starting to revolve around controlling the Chinese people instead of fighting COVID-19.

A crowd of people wearing face masks hands their phones and green COVID codes to security guards as they enter a shopping street in Beijing
China has introduced a tracking app so that people who have the virus or who may have been exposed won’t spread it to others. [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

Just days before Yu received the bracelet, thousands of residents in central China used social media to organize a protest outside a bank in Zhengzhou.

Many people have been unable to access their bank deposits at the city’s Yu Zhou Xin Min Sheng Village Bank since April, and the bank attributed the problem to a “system upgrade”.

Bored with months of excuses, depositors planned to protest in front of the bank’s headquarters. But the day before that, thousands of depositors suddenly found their smartphones beeping and the health code on their mandatory COVID-19 app went from green to red.

The color change typically occurs when the owner has visited an area infected with COVID-19 or has been designated close contact with someone with the virus, and that means that the individual must be isolated immediately.

Code Red raised an eyebrow.

There is not a single registered COVID-19 outbreak in the province, and the health codes of family members who accompanied many of the people who sent money to the rally are still green.

Protesters hold banners demanding the return of their deposits outside the People's Bank of China building in Zhengzhou
Some people who wanted to join the protest in Zhengzhou about freezing their deposits suddenly found their COVID apps turned from green to red so they couldn’t go out [File: Handout via Reuters]

Beijing says technology such as apps and wearables is crucial to its COVID-free strategy and pledges to kill the virus, but the health code is red in Zhengzhou and electronic wearables in Beijing contributed to increased skepticism.

Protection from harm

When the health code system was rolled out in early 2020, human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, warned such digital tools risked violating the human rights of any public company. Which Chinese people have smart phones.

In its first two years of operation, those initial warnings were largely drowned out by loud applause at the apparent success of the zero-COVID policy. While many Western countries are stumbling from one chaotic national lockdown to another, the Chinese authorities have been able to keep most of China’s COVID-19 from being locked down with various tools. digital tools to prevent people from getting or potentially spreading the virus.

Today, however, the roles have largely been reversed.

While most of the world has used vaccines as a way to get around coronavirus restrictions, China is stuck in a nonstop containment loop in a relentless quest to stamp out any outbreaks. COVID-19. Despite the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine and the associated drop in mortality, Beijing’s no-COVID policy has been resolutely and unrelentingly applied.

The Chinese government defends this policy as a well-meaning strategy to protect its people.

However, prolonged lockdowns in cities like Shanghai have led to reports of food shortages, separation of families and even the killing of pets of patients placed in quarantine. In mid-September, there was outrage when a bus carrying people to the COVID-19 quarantine center crashed, killing 27 passengers.

A security guard in a security complex stands guard at a blockaded residential area in Shanghai
County lockdowns, security guards wearing protective suits and COVID-19 testing sites are still common across the country nearly three years after the pandemic first began in the central city. Wuhan. [Aly Song/Reuters]

The accident is directly related to the ongoing discussion in Chinese society about the cumulative costs of the government’s coronavirus policy.

“It is the government’s no-COVID strategy that is killing us, not COVID-19,” one Weibo user claimed after the crash.

His post was quickly removed by moderators.

Initially, however, censors were overwhelmed by the popular uproar that swept through Chinese social media sites after their handling of the Zhengzhou banking protest. What human rights groups warned in 2020 has happened: digital tools supposedly deployed to ensure the health of Chinese citizens are instead being used to rob them of their rights. of those citizens themselves.

More infiltration, less support

Han Wu*, 37, from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, was among many Chinese users on Weibo expressing outrage following the Zhengzhou incident. Like Yu in Beijing, he also believes the authorities have gone too far in their pursuit of zero COVID.

Han was forced to leave home and move to one of the government’s quarantine centers for 14 days after testing positive for COVID-19 in late June.

“When I got back to my apartment, I could see the door had been forced open and my belongings were all over the place,” he told Al Jazeera, before turning on the camera on his phone to show marks and marks. outside cut. his door as proof of forced entry.

Han later learned from local authorities that they had entered his apartment to disinfect the rooms and make sure no one else was living there. These are necessary precautions, he was told.

“I am in favor of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but I am not in favor of government intrusions and violations of privacy,” he said.

Lin Pu is a scholar of digital authoritarianism and Chinese influence at Tulane University, USA.

He explained that once so-called terrorists, separatists, criminals and political activists feel the Chinese regime’s ability to oppress, but the zero-COVID policy has made the middle class often illegitimate. rather than subject to the effective arm of the government.

He said that discontent could lead to further abuse of the system.

“It is very likely that the digital tools originally used to control COVID will be increasingly used for social control if discontent continues to grow,” said Lin.

“In turn, this could create a feedback loop in which dissatisfaction with the COVID strategy leads authorities to use digital tools to ensure social control, which creates many more dissatisfied”.

‘Not revolutionary’

The frustration over COVID policies comes at a time when steady demand is paramount for China’s ruling party.

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) will begin on October 16, and President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term, making him the leader in China. the party’s longest position since Mao Zedong.

The congress is one of the most important political events in China, and is held only once every five years.

“China is facing a dual set of challenges at a time when the CCP and Xi Jinping need China to appear prosperous and harmonious,” said Christina Chen, who specializes in Chinese politics at INDSR.

The zero-COVID strategy is also taking a toll on the economy, with growth at its slowest in decades, youth unemployment at a record 20% and a distorted housing market where goods Thousands refuse to pay mortgages on unfinished homes, while a decades-long building frenzy has left more than 50 million homes uninhabited.

“China needs to appear stable and political projects tied to his presidency, such as the zero-COVID strategy, must appear as indisputable successes to legitimize his serving a third term,” added Chen.

People in China scan QR codes as part of COVID measures
Many people welcomed COVID-related digital tools when they first appeared, thinking it would make their lives easier. But as time went on, the resentment grew [File: Hector Retamal/AFP]

Going into congress, COVID cases are increasing and new variants have been discovered. Although no deaths have been reported since April, the government continues to emphasize its commitment to being COVID-free despite public outrage at the harsh restrictions and routine testing.

Back in Beijing, Yu admits the policy has made her more skeptical of authorities.

“I am not a revolutionary,” she said as she closed her fingers around the electronic monitoring bracelet in the palm of her hand.

“I just don’t want to be tracked and exploited.”

When asked what she would do if forced to wear a wristband, she stood up and pushed her chair away.

“I will show you.”

She took a few quick steps toward an open window at the back of the room and threw the bracelet into the night.

* The names of Yu Ting Xu and Han Wu have been changed to protect their identities.

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