The Chinese government’s way of turning Xinjiang province into an authoritarian technosurveillance state in which freedoms for its people have been curtailed in recent years now also appears to be the strategy used to deal with protests against the “zero Covid policy”.
At a demonstration in Beijing, Nov. 27, demonstrators hold up white paper sheets in protest against the severe restrictions of China’s zerocovid policy.
Source: Volkskrant (NL) 2 december 2022 –
A recent video from Shanghai shows three police officers in a subway compartment. They scour all passengers, demanding their phones and checking them for images of protests, foreign apps or VPN technology to circumvent Chinese censorship. They mainly target students and migrant workers, leaked police instructions show, the groups most likely to protest. The officers delete apps and protest images, register phone owners and threaten punishments.
These are practices, without any legal basis, that have been commonplace in China for some time – not in Shanghai, but in Xinjiang, the border region where at least a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in re-education camps in recent years, under the guise of counterterrorism. Xinjiang is so filled with checkpoints and face-recognition cameras that the entire region is like an open-air prison. Because of the strict repression, little information gets out.
Last week’s protests, and the repression that followed, confirm a fear that has long been prevalent in China: that the Xinjiang model is gradually being adopted throughout China. The freedom restrictions of the “zero Covid policy”, against which students and neighborhood residents demonstrated in more than 20 cities, have great parallels with “anti-terrorism” measures in Xinjiang. And the repression with which the protests are being dealt with comes directly from Xinjiang practice.
The protests also show that many Chinese disagree with this curtailment of their freedom, but can do little against it. After years of perfecting it in Xinjiang, the authoritarian technosurveillance state is now supreme.
The basis of Chinese authoritarianism is often described as a social contract. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) demands submission from its people in exchange for prosperity and security. It is a deal that subordinates individual rights to collective interests, and often at the expense of minorities such as the Uighurs. But the majority of the dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, have long been comfortable with it.
The “zero Covid policy” also fit into that social contract. The freedom of the Chinese population was limited by lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions, but this was offset by two years of human life protection and a relatively unscathed economy. The majority – those who escaped the worst lockdowns – were content. Until early this year, when the much more contagious omikron variant landed in China, the “zero Covid policy” began to swirl.
Suddenly, many Chinese saw the downside of an authoritarian government that wants to control everything. The latter wanted to contain the omikron virus at all costs. Shanghai went into lockdown for months; entire neighborhoods, businesses and campuses had to be quarantined because of a handful of infections, millions of people were taken away to quarantine centers. The economy plunged, residents feared the quarantine more than the virus. The social contract was broken.
All of China discovered what Xinjiang already knew: when the CCP sees a danger, the party tends to shoot through. In Xinjiang, after terror attacks, an entire population group was declared a potential danger. For the slightest thing, Uighurs are sent to re-education camps. Under the zerocovid policy, at the slightest risk of infection, people are locked up in “quarantine camps,” as critics call the quarantine centers. Last month, the number of “close contacts” reached 1.3 million.
As in Xinjiang, an entire security infrastructure was erected in zerocovid China, with fences, barriers and entrance gates with facial-recognition cameras. Digital health codes give police endless surveillance capabilities, and help track down last week’s protesters.
To keep the economy afloat, the government placed large companies in “closed-loop systems,” where employees could have no contact with the outside world for weeks at a time. When workers fled at iPhone maker Foxconn, local governments were ordered to fill the empty jobs. Riots over late bonuses were put down by police. That raises questions about the voluntary nature of that labor, as in Xinjiang.
Repression is much more severe in Xinjiang than in the rest of China. But the “zero Covid policy” has made it clear to China’s middle class that it too can fall prey to “senseless political campaigns driven by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excess”-as New York Times columnist Li Yuan described it. That the protests erupted after a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, which claimed Uighur victims, already shows some solidarity.
Easing and repression
Meanwhile, technosurveillance from Xinjiang is being rolled out across China. Residents in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu also reported this week that police stopped them on the streets for phone checks. The management of Tsinghua University in Beijing warned students that they could be caught remotely using VPN technology. Apple was forced to limit its Airdrop feature. The security net is becoming inescapable.
With relaxations in zerocovid policies, the Chinese government is simultaneously trying to restore the social contract. However, this is not done with a transparent exit strategy, but with a jumble of local and sometimes contradictory measures. In this way, the Chinese population is in danger of stunting into a severe covid outbreak, limitedly vaccinated and unprepared. Fudan University in Shanghai calculated that up to 1.6 million deaths could occur.
The “zero Covid policy” will eventually disappear, but not the fences and barriers, health codes and phone checks. China will become permanently more like Xinjiang.