box was left outside the door of 34-year-old Yu Ting Xu*’s home in Beijing for a few months. Inside, there was an electronic surveillance bracelet and the requirement that she wear the bracelet at all times as part of the fight against COVID-19 in her residential area.
While sharing her story in a video call, Yu shuffles around in the background. When she returns to her screen, she holds up the bracelet, which looks like a smartwatch but has a plain white plastic finish instead of a display.
“I never put it on,” she said.
“I’ve accepted lockdowns, forced COVID-19 testing, and health regulations, but this thing feels like surveillance just for monitoring’s sake.”
The bracelet was the last straw for Yu, who is one of an increasing number of citizens concerned about the motivation for the widespread use of COVID-19 related technology by Chinese authorities.
“I’m afraid the COVID-19 strategy is about controlling the Chinese instead of fighting COVID-19,” she told CNN Breaking News.
Just a few days before Yu received the bracelet, thousands of residents of Central China had used social media to organize a demonstration in front of a bank in Zhengzhou.
Many had not had access to their bank deposits at the city’s Yu Zhou Xin Min Sheng Village Bank since April. The bank claimed the issue was due to “system upgrades.”
months of excuses, depositors planned to protest outside the bank’s headquarters. But the previous day, thousands of depositors suddenly found that their smartphones were buzzing and the health regulations of their mandatory COVID-19 apps were changing from green to red.
Color changes usually occur when the owner has visited a COVID-19 infected area or has been found to have close contact with someone with the virus. This means that the person must be quarantined immediately.
The red codes raised eyebrows.
There had been no registered COVID-19 outbreak in the province, and the health regulations of family members who accompanied the many depositors to the protests remained green.
Beijing says technologies such as the app and bracelet are critical to its zero COVID strategy and commitment to fighting the virus, but red health regulations in Zhengzhou and electronic bracelets in Beijing have contributed to growing skepticism.
Protection that causes damage
When the health code system was introduced in early 2020, legal groups, including Human Rights Watch, warned that such digital tools are at risk of violating the human rights of a Chinese citizen with a smartphone.
In their first two years of existence, these early warnings were largely drowned out by thunderous applause about the obvious success of the zero-COVID policy. While many Western countries stumbled from one chaotic national lockdown to another, Chinese authorities were able to keep most of China COVID-19 free through targeted lockdowns using digital tools to prevent infected or potentially infected people from spreading the virus.
Today, however, the roles are largely reversed.
While most of the world has used vaccinations to overcome coronavirus restrictions, China is stuck in a loop of relentless lockdowns to eradicate every COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines and the associated drop in mortality rates, Beijing’s zero COVID policy remains firmly established with no end in sight.
The Chinese government is defending politics as a well-meaning strategy to protect people.
However, prolonged lockdowns in cities like Shanghai have brought with them reports of food shortages, family separations, and even the killing of pets from patients who have been quarantined. There was outrage in mid-September when a bus carrying people to a COVID-19 quarantine center crashed and killed 27 passengers.
The accident fed directly into the ongoing discussion in Chinese society about the accumulated costs of the government’s coronavirus policy.
“It is the government’s zero COVID strategy that is killing us, not COVID-19,” explained a Weibo user after the accident.
His post was quickly removed by censors.
However, censors were initially overwhelmed by the public turmoil that reigned on Chinese social media sites following the bank demonstration in Zhengzhou. What human rights organizations had warned in 2020 had happened: Digital instruments, which were allegedly used to ensure the health of Chinese citizens, were instead used to rob these very citizens of their rights.
More intrusion, less support
Han Wu*, 37, from the southern city of Guangzhou, was one of the many Chinese users on Weibo who expressed outrage over the incident in Zhengzhou. Like Yu in Beijing, he also believes that the authorities have gone too far in their quest for 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 at the end of June.
“When I returned to my apartment, I could see that the door had been forced open and my belongings were scattered everywhere,” he told CNN Breaking News before turning on his phone’s camera to show marks and cuts on the outside of his door as evidence of forced entry.
Han later learned from local authorities that they had entered his home to sanitize the rooms and make sure that no one else was living there. He was told that these were necessary precautionary measures.
“I support curbing COVID-19 infections, but I don’t support government burglaries and data breaches,” he said.
Lin Pu is a scholar of digital authoritarianism and Chinese influence at Tulane University in the United States.
He explains that it used to be so-called terrorists, separatists, criminals and political activists who felt the Chinese authorities’ ability to suppress, but the zero-COVID policy has exposed the normally more unpolitical middle class to the strong arm of the government.
He says the dissatisfaction could lead to further misuse of the system.
“It is entirely possible that the digital tools originally used for COVID control will be increasingly used for social control if dissatisfaction continues to grow,” says Lin.
“This in turn can create a feedback loop in which dissatisfaction with the COVID strategy entices authorities to use digital tools to ensure social control, leading to more dissatisfaction.”
‘Not a revolutionary’
Upset about the COVID policy comes at a time when the need for stability is paramount for China’s ruling party.
The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is due to begin on October 16, and President Xi Jinping is expected to reach an unprecedented third term, making him the party’s longest-serving leader since Mao Zedong.
The congresses are among the most important political events in China and only take place once every five years.
“China is facing a series of intensifying challenges at a time when the CCP and Xi Jinping need China to appear wealthy and harmonious,” said Christina Chen, who specializes in Chinese politics at Taiwanese think tank INDSR.
The zero COVID strategy is also damaging the economy, with the slowest growth in decades, youth unemployment at a record 20 percent and a distorted real estate market with thousands of people refusing to pay mortgages on incomplete homes amid a decades-long construction spree Has gone up from 50 million uninhabited houses.
“China must look stable, and the political projects associated with its presidency, such as the zero COVID strategy, must appear like undeniable successes to legitimize him for a third term,” adds Chen.
COVID cases are increasing at Congress and new variants have been discovered. Although no deaths have been reported since April, the government continues to stress its commitment to zero COVID, regardless of public resentment due to strict restrictions and regular testing.
Back in Beijing, Yu admits that politics have made her more skeptical of the authorities.
“I’m not a revolutionary,” she said as she wrapped her fingers around the electronic surveillance bracelet in the palm of her hand.
“I just don’t want to be monitored and exploited.”
Ask what she would do if she was forced to wear the bracelet, she stands up and pushes her chair away.
“I’ll show it to you.”
She takes a few quick steps towards an open window at the back of the room and throws the bracelet out into the night.
* Yu Ting Xu and Han Wu’s names have been changed to protect their identities.