China, Penn on the World after COVID-19 The Post-COVID-19 Future of Surveillance in China

May 20, 2020
By Amy Gadsden | Penn on the World after COVID-19

Penn on the World after COVID-19 is a joint project of Penn Global and Perry World House. We've asked some of Penn's leading faculty, fellows, and scholars to imagine what the global pandemic will leave in its wake.

Amy Gadsden is Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, Executive Director of Penn China Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to Penn, Gadsden spent more than a decade working in the foreign policy field with a focus on China.  She served as a Country Director for the International Republican Institute and as a Special Advisor for China at the United States Department of State.

One of the more significant facets of China’s reform and opening of the 1980s and 1990s was the Communist Party’s retreat from people’s personal lives. Average Chinese citizens regained control over personal decisions such as schooling, family life, and work that they did not have during the preceding decades.  While many restrictions on speech, religion, family planning, and other areas remained, it appeared that the arc of history was ever bending toward greater privatization of the personal sphere. 

That arc began to reverse course under President Xi Jinping. With the Social Credit System, which assigns citizens scores based on their driving records, online habits, social media posts and other daily actions, Beijing has raised fears that technology would increasingly be harnessed for greater repression. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided both motive and opportunity to further chip away at Chinese’s citizens’ nascent aspirations for privacy. In the world after COVID-19, China’s encroachment on privacy could provide less stability, not more, by undermining an under-appreciated aspect of the Chinese Communist Party’s social compact with the people: comparatively little interference in their daily lives.

COVID-19 has inspired both high-tech and low-tech tools to invade privacy. The use of health trackers, such as Alipay’s Health Code tracker app, which assigns users a green, yellow or red status, based on travel history, contact with others and reporting of symptoms, is now ubiquitous. A New York Times analysis of the software revealed a function that transmits users’ personal data to the police, giving authorities unprecedented digital access to personal contacts and travel histories. Many Chinese appreciate the technology’s ability to help mitigate disease spread and countries around the world are looking to emulate it.  But Chinese netizens are expressing concern about the lack of transparency explaining how codes are determined and what data is stored, prompting guidance from China’s Cyberspace Administration on balancing public health and the collection of personal information. 

Another device, from the Chinese tech firm Xiaomi, is being used to ensure that those assigned to self-quarantine do not leave their homes or have visitors during the isolation period.  The device, which is similar to a smart doorbell, notifies a local community official with an alarm and six seconds of video if the door is opened or someone passes by. 

But it is not just high-tech resources that are being deployed to fight coronavirus. Chinese authorities are also relying on neighborhood monitoring networks with centuries-old antecedents. The baojia (保甲) system, developed in the 11th century to enforce laws and policies at the local level, organized households in mutual surveillance and control units and was used to varying degrees through the mid-20th century.  Today, similar entities such as neighborhood committees (邻居委员会) and work units (单位) are being reinvigorated to monitor citizens’ travel and health status. 

Around China and abroad, people have been troubled by widely circulated images of sick family members being dragged out of their homes to quarantine facilities, which left the impression thug-like tactics will be utilized when all else fails. Commenting on China’s heavy reliance on human networks to track monitor and enforce health regulations, one analyst noted, “This hasn’t been a tech health triumph, this has been a triumph for the party and their old school methods.”

Many analysts explain the Communist Party’s “grand contract” with the Chinese people in economic terms, as something akin to: we will provide economic growth and social stability if you acquiesce to lack of political freedom and our continued rule. But one might just as persuasively argue that the key to the Party’s resilience over the past 30 years was its willingness to retreat from citizens’ personal lives and the subsequent positive economic and societal changes that meant for citizens. 

Now, the apparent tendency of Chinese officials to employ both new and old forms social control in response to the pandemic calls this grand contract into question. In the world after COVID-19, the question is whether increased surveillance can be managed in ways that preserve the party-society contract or disrupts it.

The views expressed in Penn on the World after COVID-19 posts are solely the author’s and not those of Penn, Penn Global or Perry World House.