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China’s zero-Covid policy irrational, but great for authoritarian control

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(TibetanReview.net, Nov13’22) – China’s zero-Covid policy, enforced with draconian control of the Chinese society, may seem incomprehensible as a pandemic control measure, given the fact that countries in the rest of the world with far higher number of daily new infections have long, fully opened up. However, it makes perfect sense if the zero-tolerance, or zero-infection policy is viewed as being all about politics, surveillance and control by an authoritarian regime.

Although popular opinion is impossible to gauge in China, there is growing evidence on social media of widespread suspicion that the zealous implementation of the “zero Covid” edict of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, now has more to do with surveillance, politics and propaganda than public health, noted thetimes.co.uk Nov 12.

As a pandemic control measure, the policy is seen as a failure for obvious reasons. Daily new infections have only increased, and have risen to a six-month high while the country’s economy has taken a severe hit.

The report noted that in recent days the global financial services group Nomura had estimated that full and partial lockdown measures were affecting regions home to more than 280 million people in China and one eighth of the economy. The country’s GDP growth fell to just 0.4% earlier this year, the second lowest level in three decades, after the closure for business of Shanghai, while unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds is almost 20%. And the collapse of a housing bubble has exacerbated the Covid contraction, the report added.

Daily mass testing and snap shutdowns have kept becoming routine in many parts of China. But more insidious are the contact-tracking smartphone apps based on QR codes that dominate the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese, for it could easily be used to control the Chinese society in broader terms.

People have to scan the QR code for the most basic activities: entering a shop or restaurant, taking a bus or train, going to the cinema. If the app shows a green result, they can continue. If it’s red, usually meaning they are an undefined “close contact” of someone who tested positive, they are sent to quarantine.

Add the report noted that there were fears that the apps, and the public control they deliver, will outlast other restrictions as a permanent feature of China’s surveillance machinery. This is because the code shares a trove of personal data with the regional authorities, including travel history, health records and whom one had met. It may be too tempting for Xi not to institutionalise the system after directing the development of a Big Brother state even before Covid.

This would be a powerful new tool in the regime’s armoury of control in addition to the so-called “social credit” programme China has already introduced, handing out economic and professional rewards or exacting punishments to individuals and companies based on database records of their actions, the report noted.

“The zero Covid regime has supplied proof that control over every aspect of people’s lives is doable,” the report quoted Yanzhong Huang, a Chinese public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, as saying.

“It’s not hard to imagine that components of the QR code system brought in for zero Covid could be retained to facilitate state control as part of a bigger agenda to re-engineer Chinese society.”

The report pointed out that a scandal earlier this year illustrated the scope for abuse when authorities in Henan province manipulated the system to issue fake red codes to prevent people joining protests about frozen bank deposits. On their arrival in the provincial capital from across the country, many people planning to protest said their phones suddenly flashed red when they scanned their QR codes at train stations and hotels. Several were escorted back to their home cities.

Han Yang, a former Chinese diplomat who now lives in Australia, has described the public control element as an “unintended consequence” of the Covid policy, but one which the government “simply finds irresistible, especially considering there is very little guardrail in Chinese laws on privacy or individual rights”.

The Communist Party of China and state media mouthpieces have regularly extolled China’s “victory” over Covid under Xi as evidence of the superiority of their authoritarian system over western governments. However, the reality is that although the pandemic erupted in China in late 2019, most Chinese have not been exposed to Covid-19, and certainly not to more recent variants, leaving the country with an “immunity gap,” the report noted.

Huang has noted that the decision to stick with the zero-transmission goal has become purely political. “Decisions on zero Covid have much more to do with politics than public health. … From a purely public health perspective, it’s not scientific or sustainable.”

“The idea of a modern society being able to eliminate an easily transmitted airborne virus is irrational, and the adherence to this policy in the third year of the pandemic shows the serious inadequacy of China’s top-down leadership decision making.”

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