Coronavirus Tests China’s Surveillance State

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S1: Life in Beijing right now is pretty bizarre, very post-apocalyptic.

S2: This is Josh Chen. He’s a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and he’s been living and reporting in China for the last 10 years.

S1: It’s a city of 20 million people or more depending on the time of year. And for the last few weeks, it’s been almost completely empty.

S3: Trying to go out every day just to maintain my sanity, but only really supermarkets and a handful of restaurants that are still open. No traffic. You walk down the street, you can actually hear birds chirping, which was never happens. You know, and this is one of the one of the most populous cities in the world that on most days, it’s cacophonous. And there are people everywhere.

S4: And now you go out and there’s there’s not fear of the coronavirus has kept most people at home for weeks now since the start of the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.

S5: But even though people aren’t outside that much these days, that doesn’t mean they’re not being watched. As a journalist in China, Josh is accustomed to it.

S1: But you also kind of get used to it. I think a lot of people in China just they have that sense and it sort of fades into the background after a while.

S2: But now with Corona virus, things have escalated. More than 60000 people have gotten sick worldwide. At least thirteen hundred have died. And to keep the virus at bay. The Chinese government is paying even more attention to people’s movements in a really granular way.

S6: They’ve started blocking off apartment complexes. So basically, I think it’s every apartment complex, definitely mine. And all the ones I’ve seen them are walks around the neighborhood. They’re all blocked off. So there’s only a single entrance. So that means that they can take the temperature of everyone coming in and out. But the very least, they can sort of see who’s who’s coming and going.

S2: And then there’s the high tech piece to have a phone number in China to get a SIM card. You have to provide your I.D., which means the government can track people’s movements using their phones.

S1: And there’ve been news stories of people who were sort of in Rouhani at the epicenter of this outbreak, who then traveled to other parts of the country and then who then who were tracked in order to sort of see who well might have been in contact with that person.

S4: It’s not surprising that the Chinese government is keeping tabs on who says what about coronavirus, where they go and what they do. This outbreak is showing both the range and the limits of the government’s ability to control the story. Today on the show, how coronavirus is putting China’s surveillance state to the test. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD, a show about technology power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S2: You’re, what, some 700 miles away from one? When did you first start hearing that there was an outbreak?

S1: There was news about a virus, a sort of cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases connected to this seafood and wild animal market and one at the end of the year last year. But at the time, the governments there and health officials that were really downplaying it and, you know, they said there was no human to human transmission. It’s not a big deal. And so it really wasn’t until kind of the later part of January when a very well-respected epidemiologist, too, who sort of made his name battling sores, went on national television and said, actually, this is quite a bit more serious than everyone knows. And there is human to human transmission. And we really need to fight this. And I think at that moment, the whole country realized that something was up.

S2: But even before that moment in January, doctors in Duhon recognized that what they were seeing was dangerous. And one doctor in particular, Lee, when Lee Long took the risk of speaking out, leaving the young is, you know, what’s sort of remarkable about him.

S1: And I think the reason that he’s become such a sort folk hero in China is that he was actually in a kind of normal guy. He was a young opthamologist. And we’ll hang on just to kind of overworked Chinese doctor doing his job. And he tried to alert his classmates, most of whom were doctors, to this this new cluster of pneumonia cases that he thought was SaaS. And then he later went back and corrected it and said it’s it’s actually not SaaS, is it something new? And as a result of that, he was taken in by the police. He was admonished by his hospital. He was he was warned by the police. He was forced to sign a statement saying he wouldn’t publish any more information about the virus. And then he later came out and talked about all this. And I think that was probably the act of courage that really brought him into the public eye that all this happened. He was treating a patient who had a virus and he himself caught it and became ill and then and then died suddenly.

S7: A shrine to Dr. Lee Wen Yang outside the hospital where he died, a martyr to telling the truth. He was one of eight medical officials who reported the outbreak at the start and was reprimanded by the WHO had police for spreading rumors.

S5: When you think about those initial moments of censorship when he was taken in by the police, what does that tell you about how the party and how local governments were trying to control information at that point?

S1: I think what’s important to say here is that this probably wasn’t a conspiracy by the central government to cover this up the way that incentive structures in China work is to suppress any kind of information that could sort of lead to social instability. And what’s really important in particular in this instance is the timing. So this happened the beginning of the year and that’s political season in China. So the local government was having its annual legislative political meetings, which then lead to national meetings in March. And so it’s it’s probably the most sensitive time of the year for Chinese officials and colleagues of mine reported is that officials in Bihar knew about this virus and did not want to talk about it. And so the police in this instance, they don’t need to be told that they should be on the lookout for any kind of sensitive information and they should be intimidating people into not publishing it. Anyone who’s been in China, what happened to living young is not in the least surprising.

S2: Yeah, his his death and and the reactions to it seems to have sparked reaction on social media in a way that was at least surprising to me, you know, sitting in New York watching this. And I wonder what you thought of that from your perspective. And, you know, having lived there for a while, was the outpouring on social media particularly unusual?

S1: Oh, it was totally shocking. Everyone in China who was on social media was talking about him and was angry and hurt and the conversation was raw in a way that it rarely is in China these days because the censorship and the control online have been so strong under the current leadership.

S2: Is there any sense that the government was intentionally loosening its grip on social media or was this just an emotional outpouring?

S1: This looks to me just watching it like a case of the censorship system, just being totally overwhelmed. We know that the government uses A.I. and they have lots of really sophisticated systems for censoring, but those systems can get overwhelmed when they’re flooded by a sudden news event. Right. Because these are not news events that the AI censorship algorithms have been trained to filter out yet. Right. Cause they’re new. So there was this outpouring with you and young and the the government was clearly caught off guard by that. And now they have reasserted control.

S8: So shortly after we went down, that wave passed.

S1: Xi Jinping appeared on TV and the propaganda apparatus really kicked into gear.

S9: And censorship at the same time really intensified. Suddenly, you know, people who are posting a lot about the virus had their social media accounts frozen. And there were posts that were sort of before like they would sort of be able to they would stay up for a few hours before they would get in before being censored now or being censored immediately. So they definitely tightened their grip.

S2: The government says a lot of what it’s doing is rumor control. How do people feel about that and how they react to it?

S1: It’s true. You know, in China, there is a there are a lot of rumors on the Internet. But when you look at the Chinese Internet, what’s being filtered is not necessarily the disinformation. I mean, a certain amount of it is in our. You know, it’s definitely killing some rumors that are pernicious. But a lot of what it’s killing is just information that is inconvenient to the Communist Party or that contravenes its narrative. And I think most savvy Chinese Internet users know this. And there’s just a kind of fundamental lack of trust in the state media in China.

S10: And so the effect of that is actually that Chinese people are tend to be voracious consumers of rumors because they don’t trust any source of information. So they try to triangulate by collecting as much of it as they can. That must make it really hard to figure out what’s going on right now. And scary for people.

S1: Right. I think that. I mean, I think it’s it’s in moments like these where you really do see the value of having a free press. You know, with only some news organizations that are sort of reliable, because in China right now, I think there is a sense of like no one really knows what to believe.

S2: The effort to control information about the virus is only one half of the equation. The other part is trying to contain the virus itself. And over the last month, the Chinese government has tried to do that using its vast surveillance apparatus.

S1: You started seeing various city governments around China putting out these messages, tracing people’s movements in very minor detail. One of my colleagues pointed out these posts from the city of Nanjing, which is eastern China, where they had this. You know, here’s a person who would like F-15E entered the Nanjing South Railway Station and 3:36, he’s which trains. And then and then it just traced his route all the way through the city to a hospital back. As soon as you saw that, it was clear that they were using their surveillance systems to try to fight the virus.

S2: Josh has been watching this effort unfold over the last month. But as the virus has spread, it’s become clear that those systems have limits.

S6: But they’re mostly doing is relying on their access to some telecommunications companies. Most of the telecommunications companies in China’s state run it all. The big ones are state run. Also their access to railway companies and airlines. All of this data stuff that the Chinese government has greater, easier access to than probably any other major government in the world. And they’re using that to track the movements of particular people who were in line at the epicenter, which is a new and unusual thing. I mean, no one no other country has really been able to do that at its scale with an epidemic like China has.

S1: But then the flip side of it is there’s also a lot of human surveillance and an immense amount of human surveillance. And what’s really interesting is that actually it seems to me that, you know, despite Chinese government having built this immense digital surveillance machinery, that they’ve ended up having to fall back in this instance on of old fashioned human intelligence.

S2: Is that as simple as like A.I. facial recognition doesn’t work when everybody’s wearing a mask? Or is it more insidious than that?

S1: That’s part of it. I mean, I think that part of the Communist Party’s surveillance push has been really based on facial recognition technology and so that, you know, it’s not real. Now, the other part of it, I think, is just that it’s, you know, it’s just the system’s maybe not ready for prime time. The Communist Party is. And Chinese companies have been really they’ve really leaned into this idea of China as a sort of techno authoritarian power and have been pushing this notion of the party as being sort of digitally omniscient. And I think what this is showing anyway is that the hype maybe is running ahead of the reality a little bit in these systems aren’t as nimble and complete as they need to be, at least in the face of a major health crisis.

S2: The Chinese government has committed to basically being an A.I. leader by 2030. That’s a big deal for the party. And I wonder if some of the maybe holes in their AI system that have been demonstrated by this, like is that embarrassing for them?

S6: I guess the question is how embarrassing, what context? Because they because they control the narrative at home, especially now, they are really reasserting control over over the story of the outbreak. They’ve been rolling out these stories of officials using drones to take people’s temperature isn’t a way to deal with people who are walking around outside without masks. And so they’re really if all you’re looking at is Chinese media, you get the impression that actually the systems are working really great.

S1: So I don’t think you’ll be embarrassed at home and they might, you know, maybe sort of embarrass a little bit on a abroad. But on the other hand, China’s advantage with a guy with these sorts of technology is that it’s willing to put them into use in ways that other countries are not.

S2: I mean, I guess I’m asking about this in this very American framing where, you know, sitting in New York. It does sound scary. It does sound like it’s designed to keep people in line. You’ve lived there for a decade and I guess I’m one. Am I overstating it? Like, am I losing something in the translation when I’m asking about this technology?

S1: There are some people in China who, particularly in the cities, who are now becoming much more concerned about the privacy violations. But overall, I think people in China are used to this idea of the government knowing a lot about them. And so to the extent that these technologies are being used by the government, I don’t think that there’s a huge amount of fear and loathing about it.

S11: And actually, in this case, the virus, I think most people are reassured that it exists. The idea is that this is a case in which tracking someone by their smartphone across the country to see where they went and publishing that information is maybe a Noack violation of privacy. And I kind of wonder if in the US there was a similarly serious outbreak whether people might rethink privacy there as well.

S12: Justin, thank you so much for talking with me. Thank you for having me.

S13: Josh Chinh covers technology and politics in China for The Wall Street Journal. All right. That is it for today. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me. Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of a larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Also, if you like this episode and you’re still trying to wrap your head around Corona virus, I’d like to recommend another Slate podcast. It’s called How To with Charles Duhok. Last week’s How-To is all about protecting yourself from the Corona virus, and you can find that wherever you get to podcasts. All right, Mary, we’ll be back on Tuesday. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.