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President Xi has put to bed any murmurs of discontent with his governance from the people since his rise to power in 2013. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese state had a near-monopoly in control over most aspects of life. Now, COVID-19 appears to have allowed for a veil in which the state uses mass testing and tracing beyond reason to further the party’s ambitions to create a total surveillance state.
China was the first country the virus hit, and so Xi led the way in showing how to deal with it.
He was widely commended by the international community for his rapid response, including by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Yet, many quickly asked at what cost this praise had come.
Intense surveillance measures were introduced from the very beginning, including tracking people’s whereabouts to lower the virus’ spread, creating neighbourhood watches to ensure those who tested positive quarantine.
Many of those strategies introduced in February continue to be observed today, despite China going for sometimes weeks without recording a single case.
As Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at the organisation Human Rights Watch, told Express.co.uk, Chinese citizens are mostly proud that China has contained the virus, and feel the government has done a good job.
Although there are now signs, she said, that people living under the measures are moving towards fatigue, discontent with President Xi’s exertions.
Ms Wang explained: “I am seeing more citizens criticising surveillance techniques.
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“Many now view the methods as too much and unnecessary.
“I’ve seen posts to Chinese social media complaining about the facial recognition outside their compound.”
Asides from regular citizens, Ms Wang said people like academics and scholars – those who were severely reprimanded during the cultural revolution – are also now speaking out and attempting to bring lawsuits against the surveillance state.
Ms Wang added: “I think in general, across the board, people kind of accept the surveillance because they see the result in China compared to the West.
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“Although we are seeing, slowly, an increased awareness and discontent with the state’s methods.”
President Xi’s methods have stripped away many of the freedoms of everyday citizens.
The Health Code app, similar to the NHS’ test and trace app, determines a person’s ability to move around with the colour of a QR code.
It runs on the ubiquitous Alipay and WeChat apps, specifically created for China, and gives users a code of colours: green, yellow, red, the latter being the most severe form of forced quarantine.
Separate apps have also been created and deployed in the country’s 23 provinces, putting further tabs on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.
The government has harnessed the power of the country’s number of CCTV cameras, the highest in the world.
The complex network has been used to trace the contacts of people who have been in touch with those infected, as well as punishing businesses flouting the rules.
A civil servant described the environment to Reuters as a “war situation” in which “we must adopt war-time thinking”.
Security personnel, known as “grid members”, spend hours scrutinising footage, monitoring the sprawling networks of cameras.
This, of course, many have noted, could be open to human error, which begs the question of how stringent the surveillance really is.
James Leibold, associate Professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, who has researched similar surveillance systems in Xinjiang, noted: “This type of surveillance is far more human driven than it is tech driven.”
Other methods employed include constructing loudspeakers in towns and cities to break up any unlawful gatherings.
As Ms Wang mentioned, facial recognition cameras have also been set up outside apartment compounds in order to record the coming and going of people, as well as anyone who has left and shouldn’t have.
President Xi has praised his country’s handling of the pandemic, saying it has acted “openly and transparent” and that the fight against COVID is “the people’s war”.
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