China after Covid-19: normalcy and surveillance


The pandemic is well under control in China. Hardly any new infections, only a few restrictions. However, when new cases arise, people react without regard to their rights.

By Steffen Wurzel, ARD-Studio Shanghai

People are dancing again in the nightclubs of major Chinese cities – as they did before the Covid-19 pandemic. Like here in Shanghai last weekend. People are going out again, the shops are full. From a purely statistical point of view, the risk of becoming infected is now only very low in the most populous country in the world. The official number of new infections every day is usually in the single-digit range. Most of them are so-called imported cases, i.e. Chinese people who have returned from abroad.

At the entrance of some restaurants, in authorities, bank branches and hospitals, the temperature is often still measured, but otherwise everything is normal again in China. Shops, shopping centers, restaurants and health clubs: almost everything is open again, schools and universities anyway.

“My life has felt reasonably normal again since the end of March / beginning of April,” says a 39-year-old from Shanghai. “I only put on the mask when it gets full around me. So whenever there is jostling somewhere.”

Health code and patchwork quilt

“When you ride the subway, you definitely have to wear a mask because the air cannot circulate well down there,” says a beautician from Shanghai. “We still have to measure the temperature or show the health code on the phone when we go out, in pubs, clubs or karaoke and so on. That’s okay with me, I’ve got used to it.”

The health code the 40-year-old is talking about is generated with a smartphone app. It has been ubiquitous to people in China since the beginning of the Covid crisis. The app calculates a personal risk from location and wireless network data: green, yellow or red. Without the app and without the green code, you can hardly move in China any more. As a result, the authorities can track who is where or where, when, even better than before.

You usually need a green code, especially at train stations, airports and motorway toll stations. In short: whenever you move across city and provincial borders within China. There is no uniform Corona app in China, on the contrary: there is a digital patchwork quilt. Every provincial government, every city administration muddles away. The mutual trust of the Chinese authorities is obviously not that great.

Data protection and fundamental rights do not play a role

If several on-site infections are confirmed somewhere in China these days, then the excitement is great. When two new cases became known a few days ago in the city of Manzhouli, in the far north of the country, the television news deserved extensive coverage.

As a rule, mass tests are then arranged on site. Hundreds of thousands to several million people are tested for the coronavirus within a few days. The affected cities will be largely isolated from the rest of the country for the period.

Lots of large-scale testing and consistent follow-up of contacts: these are the most important means of the Chinese authorities in the fight against the virus. Personnel and money are irrelevant. Then there are the almost completely closed external borders. In addition, it is crucial: data protection and personal basic rights do not play a role in the dictatorship of China. The authorities create digital movement profiles of people, use the images from surveillance cameras, and they don’t have to take the rule of law into account. Unlike in Europe, there are no public debates: neither about the corona measures, nor about the origin of the pandemic.

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