The Chinese Communist Party’s zero-Covid policy wasn’t about controlling the virus. It was about controlling the Chinese people. The white-paper protests, in which people held up blank pages, became a visible expression of anger. The government eventually announced looser testing and dropped the mandatory Covid surveillance app on mobile phones. But changes in the government’s Covid policy won’t eliminate the people’s rage. The party has always viewed the Chinese people as its enemy. Its euphemistic slogan that it exists to “serve the people” would be better understood as “serve the party”, and the pandemic has been a major opportunity for the party to serve its interests. Reports suggest companies involved in zero Covid are making huge profits and have direct ties to high-level party officials or their families. This includes the companies that provide weekly tests for the 1.4 billion people in China, as well as those that have built and manage quarantine hospitals.

Under zero Covid, the Chinese were required to go to a testing site every few days. If one person waiting in line in a 20-person sample tests positive, those tested together could be suddenly forced on a bus to a quarantine centre to stay for 5 days. Citizens were sent to quarantine even if their 20-person sample was numerically adjacent to a positive sample set. If case numbers triggered the “all test each day” alert, then everyone in an area would be required to test for 3 days. Entire apartment buildings and neighbourhoods were sent off to quarantine without warning. And when people finally got home, they and their family had to remain in isolation another 3 days. During that isolation, an electronic system was attached to the family’s doors, notifying pandemic-centre workers anytime it opened. Any resistance led to the door being welded shut with no way to get out for food or to escape danger. That’s how people died in the November 24 fire in Urumqi that sparked the A4 protests.

A further level of dystopia came from the “health number” assigned to citizens, combining big data with digital and human surveillance operators to create a web of control. A green number, visible by mandate on your mobile phone, meant that the owner was free to move about. Yellow indicated possible infection or contact, requiring self-isolation at home. Red meant a positive case and a trip to quarantine. The number could be changed arbitrarily by the authorities to prevent movement, bar citizens from public transportation and prohibit entering public parks and shops. It’s not hard to imagine how pleased the regime must have been to have this on-the-fly remote-detention mechanism to restrict the movement of its opponents under the guise of public health. Paired with the party’s sky-eye system of nationwide surveillance via movement and facial recognition, the regime has a well-stocked toolkit to monitor and control the population.

But while the regime’s weapons of mass incarceration and criminalisation are formidable, the people have the means to fight back. They are taking to the streets and sharing information. The easing of zero-Covid restrictions suggests a government aware of the people’s anger. Widespread repetition of the words from Peng Lifa’s October protest on a Beijing overpass, which the authorities rushed to sweep from the internet, is one example of cracks in the party’s censorship operation. The A4 protests demonstrate that despite the constant propaganda and censorship, the Chinese people can think for themselves. No one can know what will happen in the coming days, or how the party will react. But some things are very clear: The Chinese people understand that the root of the problem lies not only with the regime’s zero-Covid policy but with the party’s authoritarian system itself.

Source: Wall Street Journal. Written by Mr. Chen a distinguished fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Centre for Human Rights and author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.”

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