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Thursday, June 1, 2023

How China matured into a full-fledged Surveillance State during the Covid-19 pandemic

Under the garb of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has leveraged its social credit system to coerce and manipulate the behaviour of its own people.

“Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny” -a new book authored by Ian Willams spotlights that the social credit system in the party-state came of age during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the disease became an excuse to roll out new pilot schemes, with major implications on individual freedoms.

While some provinces rate social standings through a point scoring system, others use technology and Big Data to backlist individuals and businesses. For instance, in Rongcheng, a city close to the Yellow Sea, 10 points are deducted for not wearing a mask in public while the cost of failing to self-isolate costs 50 points, as reported by Foreign Policy magazine. Overcharging for medical supplies, selling fake medical goods, not wearing masks, violating quarantine and consuming wild animal products were some of the acts on which the local authorities rapidly imposed social credit retaliation, in the months following the eruption of the pandemic on Chinese soil.

Prohibition from high-speed rail travel, luxury hotel bookings and buying flights were part of a variety of disincentives that were imposed to punish those who were put on the blacklist. Businesses can be blocked from participating in government programmes and subsidies, while citizens can be barred from government employment if their scores fall below the minimum acceptable level.

Adam Knight, the author of a new paper titled Going Viral: The Social Credit System and COVID-19, points out that Ministry of Transport put drivers who used express lanes reserved for key workers have been restricted from carrying out further transportation services. Misdemeanours related to hiding virus symptoms, concealing details of foreign travel, avoiding medical treatment or having contact with suspected patients have been added to people’s personal social credit file. The BBC reports that even whistle-blower medics and journalists exposing the scale of suffering were jailed for allegedly spreading “rumours” or false information, as defined by their enforcers.

Out of 96 Covid-related infringements, only nine were deemed serious enough to warrant criminal proceedings by the Shanghai government. Nevertheless, these records were made public online and attached to the individual’s credit record. Behaviour condoned by the CCP is rewarded with access to a bureaucratic “green channel” at government offices for faster paperwork-processing, discounts on utility bills or easier access to state-backed loans including cash payments, says a Times report.

The New York Times is reporting that a “Traffic Light”, as it is popularly known, is a colour coded smartphone app that crunches data and awards user with red, amber or green code according to the determination of infection risk. There is a growing interest in the CCP to make the app permanent to bolster its surveillance state and standardise “social control” systems.

Another aspect of the Traffic light app is that it was introduced as a mini app within Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay apps rather than a standalone one. The data collected by these established apps combined with the GPS tracking ability of the Traffic Light app has led to fears of China becoming a “digital leviathan” that encourages people not to question the system for fear of reprisals.

In areas under lockdown, phone location data is being used to monitor movement and enforce curfews. If a patient is designated for quarantine, geolocation pings on their phone can alert authorities if they stray out of their homes. Phone location data is also being used to map with precision the locations visited by the person two weeks before diagnosis.

A combination of human and automated computer analysis is used to work out the individuals they may have infected. A text message is then sent out through one of the major apps alerting those who may be at risk.

Information flowing through China’s digital networks is closely monitored and controlled on the insistence of the CCP, making its digital security more precarious and vulnerable. The Economist has revealed that information sent through WeChat or Alipay must pass through central servers as plain text, unencrypted so that the company can filter and censor them according to the government’s requirements.

Besides, in China, cameras installed on road walks have facial recognition system, along with licence plate determination abilities that instantly alert authorities if anyone is found breaking quarantine. The system can be accurately described as a clever form of soft totalitarianism as it encourages people not to act against the will of the authorities.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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