In response to widespread protests and a slumping economy, the Chinese Communist Party abruptly reversed its zero-Covid policies. Rather than taking responsibility for bad policy, however, Beijing instead left a scared and immunologically vulnerable populous to fend for itself in a country with an inadequate healthcare structure. Analysts have said that rather than using the lockdowns as an opportunity to fortify its healthcare system, which has been inadequate to serve China’s large population even before the coronavirus, Beijing doubled down on state and local surveillance.
In the next couple of articles, we will look at the aftermath of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy, a policy that General Secretary Xi Jinping has used to justify the superiority of China’s socialist system over “chaotic” democratic systems. CNN reported that local governments were so intent on pleasing Xi Jinping and the federal government, that they spent billions on virus controls rather than on hospitals, public health communication, or provisions for the people.
Even after the zero-Covid measures were lifted and hospitals and crematoriums have become overwhelmed, the CCP’s Central Legal and Political Affairs Commission has instructed local police to track down who attended the protests throughout the country.
Tracking and Detaining Protesters
The Washington Post and NPR reported on the CCP’s use of cell tower data to track, harass, and detain people who were within the vicinity of the protests. Both outlets talked to eyewitnesses and lawyers representing the protesters on condition of anonymity.
Cate Cadell and Christian Shepherd at the Washington Post write that even though Beijing’s reversal of its zero-Covid policies looked as though the government was responding to protesters’ complaints, in reality, authorities were mobilizing to intimidate and arrest protesters:
Dozens of people who took part in the protests have paid heavily for the dissent, subject to intense surveillance measures and aggressive interrogations in police custody, even as Beijing was shifting to unravel the policies.-Cate Cadell & Christian Shepherd, Tracked, detained, vilified: How China throttled anti-covid protests – The Washington Post
Accounts from protesters in Shanghai and Beijing said that authorities threatened their families, conducted strip searches, and forced them to go multiple hours without sleep or a bathroom. Some were handcuffed and forced to sit in a squatting position for an hour or do squat exercises or copy pages of political documents by hand.
A man who was detained by police told the Washington Post that the purpose of the questioning to was to find out who organized the protests and if it involved foreign forces. Several of the interviewees said their phones were confiscated and checked for “foreign” apps like Twitter or Telegram or if the phone had a VPN. This corresponds with the accounts in an NPR article about eight young women who were arrested for being at the protests. One of their friends said the police needed a theory to explain away the protest in Beijing, and they are trying to find an organizer to blame. A lawyer who represents some of the protesters and spoke with the Washington Post said that he received a message from his Telegram account that someone had tried to log in his account. They had managed to figure out one of the two passwords needed for two-factor authentication.
NPR reports that the women who were arrested included journalists and writers. Later reports said that there was also a teacher and a sociologist, all young women who recently graduated college. The last of the women to be arrested was a 26-year-old publication editor, who made a video that she instructed one of her friends to share on social media if she is arrested. The Guardian recently confirmed the identity of the editor in the video as Cao Zhixin at Peking University Press. She and her friends were summoned by police a few days after the protest in Beijing, but then released. However, each of the girls were detained again between December 18 and 24 and taken to an undisclosed location where they were forced to sign a blank arrest warrent.
The young women didn’t think they would get arrested for attending a vigil for those that had died in the Urumqi apartment fire. Cao said in the video that they followed the law, and she didn’t understand why, of all the people there, her friends were targeted.
According to Cao’s friend, the security forces’ working theory is the protests in Beijing were organized by a group of feminists who were influenced by Western ideas. When NPR talked to other people who were at the Beijing location, they said the protests were not instigated by feminists or foreign forces. The vigils were peaceful and held because people were frustrated over the zero-Covid.
(Note for an update on the young women, see this CNN article here.)
Cell Phone Data and Tech Tracking
Cao and her friends were unsure how the authorities knew they were at the site. The same thing happened to a young man who spoke to the Washington Post. Several people who either attended or were near the locations of the protests in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities have reported being called up by authorities, likely because their cell phones were near the site of protest locations. Often their parents received phone calls or visits too.
According to the Post:
In the days and weeks following the unrest, authorities fanned out to find its instigators, setting into motion a police-led information-gathering network that has been fortified under President Xi Jinping with the aid of big data and high-tech policing.-Cate Cadell & Christian Shepherd, Tracked, detained, vilified: How China throttled anti-covid protests – The Washington Post
In 2016, the CCP announced the “Sharp Eyes” project, which would provide 100% surveillance coverage of the population by 2020. Many Chinese citizens view surveillance as safety precautions, and they assume detentions and arrests are for people who cause problems. But, as Ross Anderson wrote in his 2020 article “The Panopticon Is Already Here,” the oppressive surveillance of the Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang served as a testing ground for the technology used for the Sharp Eyes project.
Previous reports have shown that Chinese authorities have massive databases with information on Chinese citizens that include cell phone data. Likely, police looked at cell tower data and facial recognition cameras to identify everyone that was in the vicinity of the protests. Then using their massive database, they were able to identify and contact those that were near the sites of the protests as well as their families. According to CNN, two of the girls who were at the Beijing protest had gone home to visit family when they were arrested, implying they were being monitored and tracked.
In a New York Times article from December, Li Yuan writes,
If good governance is about transparency, responsibility, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the people, the Chinese government has barely practiced it, either in its harsh “zero Covid” policy or in its haphazard reopening.-Li Yuan, “With ‘Zero Covid,’ China Proved It’s Good at Control. Governance Is Harder,”New York Times, 12/26/22.
Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy has, indeed, shown the world the strengths of a techno-authoritarian state. As entrepreneur Chen Tianyong who left China in 2019, said on WeCat, “The ability to control is different from the ability to govern.”