Will China use COVID-19 apps to suppress dissent?

welcome to Foreign Police‘s China Brief.

This week’s highlights: Recent reports raise concerns about use by authorities COVID-19 health apps to suppress dissent, the Chinese navy launches its third aircraft carrierand the United States Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law Take effect.

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Are China’s COVID-19 restrictions permanent?

Critics have long warned that China could transform its COVID-19 restriction towards control dissent. Travel in China now relies on loosely integrated healthcare apps that vary from city to city and province to province, raising concerns. Since last week, there have been more reports that these systems have been used to prevent people from protesting in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, after a bank fraud scandal. During this time, a local woman sued the Henan provincial government for allegedly changing his COVID-19 status, preventing him from attending a hearing.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which illness becomes a permanent excuse for political control, but it doesn’t seem so likely. First, the excuse only works when people see the restrictions as necessary, and it seems that is no longer the case in China. Although there is still decent public support, frustration with government restrictions is increasingly evident both on line and offline. Lockdowns in Shanghai have dealt a major blow to the zero COVID policy, but the daily intrusions of apps and testing are also fraying nerves.

In addition, the debate on Zhengzhou affairs has taken place in public, with major media and pro-government figures such as Hu Xijin criticize the local government. This suggests that the central government wants to maintain the credibility of the restrictions and that local officials may suffer the consequences. Debate around a particular topic – and especially a sensitive one – can change quickly in China, but so far there are few signs that the central government is endorsing controls like those used in Zhengzhou.

Anti-protest measures often involve delicate negotiations between local and central governments. Local governments generally want to stifle dissent, while central government may want to know what people are protesting against, especially if it involves local officials. This tension was traditionally exerted through petition system, a way for locals to bring their complaints to Beijing. Local government officials sought to arrest the petitioners to reach the capital. Even if individual petitioners were unsuccessful, the volume of petitions reaching Beijing could reflect badly on a particular local area.

But top-down control tools, much like COVID-19 healthcare apps, can easily become weapons for local authorities, even if that is not their explicit purpose. When the central government introduced real name policies for buying train tickets in 2012, local authorities found a new mechanism to vet would-be petitioners: blacklist their names at the station, preventing them from traveling to Beijing.

Rather than healthcare apps remaining in place for the long term, I expect elements of the COVID-19 control system to be integrated into China’s existing monitoring and control network. After all, early COVID-19 restrictions often involved existing systems operating at full capacity: locking doors that were normally open, activating facial recognition systems where they were previously too intrusive, and using the train system in name. real to track who had passed through Wuhan.

These systems are usually too expensive (in terms of time, effort and money) to operate continuously. A recent New York Times investigationusing the documents provided by China File, shows how much money China already spends on such measures. Even in Xinjiang, where the government has pushed the system to its limits to control and imprison the Uyghur population, some controls have now been removed. relaxed in the name of tourism.

How long severe restrictions will remain in place after the COVID-19 outbreaks dissipate depends on fear of central government dissent, how far public tolerance can be pushed, and what an economy can bear. already overloaded.


Updates from Beijing, Shanghai. As for COVID-19 control, outbreaks in Beijing and Shanghai have apparently returned to a simmer. Semi-lockdowns and sudden closures will likely be the norm for some time. Authorities are also working hard to vaccinate the elderly, turning to more coercive measures in some localities, such as the threat of cutting benefits. (For months they struggled to reach rural seniors in particular.)

China could be softening the ground for a more relaxed policy, both by ensuring that vaccinations prevent deaths and by convincing the public that the omicron variant is relatively mild. New study endorsed by Beijing’s top COVID-19 czar says only a small fraction of people hospitalized in Shanghai’s main outbreak developed serious illnessbut it is unclear how genuine these figures are, given that the official death toll at the time raised questions.

When China opens up, official statistics are likely to downplay the inevitable deaths and hospitalizations that result.

Aircraft carrier launch. Last Friday, China launched the Fujianits third aircraft carrier after the locally produced shandong (launched 2017) and Soviet era liaoning (purchased from Ukraine and relaunched in 2012). The ship won’t be combat-ready for several years, but it marks an important step in modernizing China’s fleet, using new launch methods that even US aircraft carriers are just beginning to incorporate.

However, the Chinese navy remains far behind its American counterpart, and its aircraft carriers may be destined for smaller third states, such as Sam Roggeveen argue in Foreign Police. Nevertheless, the launch came with a strong dose of nationalism.

Fallout from the Tangshan attack. After a video of a brutal attack against three women by local gang members sparked national outrage, Tangshan was stripped of status as a “civilized national city”. The Chinese Communist Party central committee grants the honorary title, which is relatively common: nearly half of all Chinese cities can claim to be a national civilized city. The move, however, reflects the central government’s attempt to divert the story of women’s safety to Tangshan’s alleged failings.

Some local policemen have already been disciplined, and other Tangshan officials may be as well. The attack also sparked a wave of fear and outrage over women’s rights in China, despite authorities censoring some feminist reporting. The main public concern now is that the attackers in Tangshan are escaping justice through their local connections – and whether the women who were attacked are OK.


The United States enforces Uyghur forced labor law. After being passed last December, the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect this week, which could more disruption in US-China trade. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs work under efficient slave labor as part of the Chinese government assault on Uyghur society and culture. Many American companies raw materials region, and the law places the onus on them to prove the absence of forced labor in their supply chains.

Unsurprisingly, China is furious. It is likely that companies, especially those based outside the US that still have to comply with US law, will come under pressure: China has passed many anti-sanctions measures targeted at US regulations since 2015. Beijing may also use unofficial boycotts against US companies changing their sourcing, as it has already done against Australia, South Korea, Lithuania and Norway, to name a few.

Learn about the battles to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law in Congress here.

Crypto crash. China pushes anti-cryptocurrency stance following recent market downturn, with state media Attention that bitcoin is “heading towards zero”. Weibo social media platform has banned many prominent cryptocurrency accounts and censored discussions of bitcoin and other tokens. The government cracked down on cryptocurrency miners last September, after years of general hostility towards currencies, which Beijing sees as a vehicle for fraud and money laundering.

China Brief gives credit where it is due: it is hard to blame China for these policies. Although Silicon Valley continues to invest heavily in a Web3 vision that seems both not clear and dearChinese markets were already burned through peer-to-peer lending fraud. China is invested in its own plans for the digital yuan, which does not use blockchain technology, but they remain at a early and experimental arrange.

Alibaba relaxes. Online retail giant Alibaba and the Ant Group, which controls paid service Alipay, are under pressure to detach their operations more distant from each other. The two companies, separated 11 years ago, are owned by founder and billionaire Jack Ma. At the end of 2020, Ant Group attempted an initial public offering that would have been the largest in the world but which was blocked by regulatorsmarking the start of a government crackdown on the tech industry.

Ma, once a critic of government policies to a limited degree, has since been silent in public, and the company is to get closer to a possible agreement to allow a new IPO. Regulators’ concerns weren’t just political: the intertwining of monopolized services on single platforms is a major concern.

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