COVID Controls Offer Insight Into China’s Surveillance Network

For many outside China, this was the year that the term “surveillance state” became something they understood.

Western media reported in April on what were thought to be government-operated drones whirring through a locked-down Shanghai, China’s most populous city, where authorities reported a record 22,000 new cases of COVID-19 on a single day. In an unverified viral video, one drone trumpeted, “Control your soul’s desire for freedom” as it hovered over a housing compound at night.

Citizens were expected to download a “health code” app for smartphones that dictated their activities. Designed to curtail the spread of the virus, a green QR code meant freedom to move around. A red code barred movement.

In the city of Zhengzhou, authorities in June allegedly issued red codes, usually sent to people deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection or already infected, to people heading to town to protest a local bank that was freezing their assets.

At the end of November, when unprecedented protests against the “zero-COVID” policy erupted nationwide, Western media reported that authorities began checking the smartphones of people near the demonstrations, looking for VPN software that allowed them access to sites and social platforms like Twitter beyond China’s “Great Firewall.”

By mid-December, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation to restrict the use of the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Wildly effective for spreading dancing baby videos and political messaging both real and fake, the lawmakers had security concerns about the data Beijing might be collecting from millions of users as each video played.

According to University of Virginia professor Aynne Kokas, who wrote the book “Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty,” Beijing’s strict zero-COVID response to the pandemic played a big role in showing the rest of the world what surveillance in China is like, including targeting dissidents.

“China’s handling of its zero-COVID policy and the enhancement of surveillance in China in order to achieve that zero-COVID policy has amplified global popular understanding of the scope and scale of China’s surveillance tech,” she told VOA Mandarin in an interview.

Many ways to watch

Street cameras are the primary mode of surveillance, with more than half of the world’s nearly 1 billion surveillance cameras located in China.

In addition to picking people out of crowds, surveillance cameras “aim to transform ‘unstructured information’ into ‘structured information,’ turning a chaotic visual field into something akin to a text file that can be easily, automatically analyzed, and searched,” according to an October report from Human Rights Watch.

Surveillance also includes the collection of biometric data, like voice samples, DNA, iris scans and gait “to form a multimodal portrait,” according to the HRW report. Forced biometric data collection has been tied to repression in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chinese companies have supplied AI surveillance technology to 63 countries, 36 of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the government has launched a crackdown against Uyghurs, the big data system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP, closely tracks behaviors Beijing deems suspicious — such as avoiding neighbors or stopping cell phone use — and flags the individuals for interrogation.

Maintaining control, order

But the real effect of this sweeping surveillance system is social control, according to Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at HRW.

“IJOP is promoted as an anti-terrorism system, but if you study it carefully, anti-terrorism is not its real purpose,” said Wang. “The system uses variables such as whether someone goes to the gas station or how often their phone is turned off to measure suspicious behavior. Systems like IJOP are ineffective as anti-terrorism mechanisms.”

Beyond Xinjiang, in other parts of China, the government often promotes surveillance technology as a way to maintain social order, according to Bulelani Jili, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying Chinese technology.

“The CCP is always framing surveillance technologies as part of its needs and ambitions for political stability,” he told VOA Mandarin in an interview. “Both the promotion and application of surveillance technology has really been about ensuring political stability.”

But when China began experiencing unprecedented protests around the country late last month from people fed up with Beijing’s strict pandemic protocols, authorities employed that technology to locate protestors who believed they’d taken steps to hide themselves from the ubiquitous monitoring.

HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the backlash against the zero-COVID policy and against the security forces that kept people from protesting outside banks in Henan and Anhui show that people are increasingly questioning Beijing’s positive stance on the use of surveillance technology.

TikTok restrictions

The final month of 2022 has seen a flurry of steps taken by Taiwan and the United States to restrict the use of TikTok due to security concerns posed by the Chinese-owned social media app.

In early December, Taiwan announced that government workers would be restricted from using TikTok on government devices. Then on December 18, Taiwan’s government announced it had opened a probe into TikTok on suspicion of illegally operating a subsidiary on the island.

In the U.S., 19 of its 50 states have at least partially blocked access to TikTok on government devices, with most of those restrictions coming in the past few weeks. The U.S. Senate also passed a bill December 14 that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.

These moves are signs of growing concern over the surveillance threats that TikTok poses outside China, analysts said, and more broadly, how the Chinese government uses technology to monitor people within China’s borders.

“One could see a situation where a staffer in the House or Senate would be using TikTok for entertainment purposes, but then that app could also monitor their other communications,” UVA’s Kokas said in an interview with VOA Mandarin. “When we’re talking about government phones, or government devices, those risks become even more elevated.”

Kokas said TikTok has the capacity to pose a number of national security threats, including spreading misinformation and disinformation. Gathering consumer data from TikTok also gives China a competitive advantage to build better products for the global marketplace.

At a regular press conference in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning rebutted the allegations about TikTok, saying that accusations of “spreading false information and using it as an excuse to suppress relevant Chinese companies has become a common practice in the United States.”

Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is logical to Kokas, but she cautioned that it is not a panacea.

“This isn’t going to solve Chinese consumer data gathering in the U.S. by any means,” she said. But “a TikTok ban for general users doesn’t make a lot of sense. We need a more expansive data security regime in the U.S.”


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