By: Madison Kenyon
Impunity Watch Staff Writer
BEIJING, China — On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China announced that health authorities were in the process of treating dozens of individuals who all had similar symptoms. A few days later, the Wuhan government confirmed that these individuals had all been infected with a new virus: COVID-19. Now about five months later, the spread of the virus seems to be slowing down in cities throughout China, and thus China has begun lifting its lockdown measures.
Despite the Chinese government lifting many of its lockdown measures, over 200 cities in China now require its citizens to download software that tracks citizens’ movements. Specifically, in order to freely move throughout different Chinese regions, a citizen must download either the WeChat or Alipay App which contains this software. After downloading this, the citizen is required to answer a list of personal information questions, including: name, Chinese ID number, phone number, residential address, their place of work, their travel history, and their purpose for being in the region. Next, the citizen is required to answer a list of health questions, ranging from “Do you have any symptoms? to “Have you been in contact with someone with COVID-19?” Based on the answers to these questions, each citizen is administered a different colored scanning code – either green, yellow, or red. Those who receive a green code can move around the city freely. However, those that receive a yellow code must self-quarantine for seven days, and those with a red code must self-quarantine for 14-days.
Although these cities have not technically made it a requirement for its citizens to download this software, they have implicitly done so since citizens may not travel throughout the city without a colored code. Specifically, a citizen is required to scan into every public place they enter. The government argues this is necessary to track the travel history of someone who becomes infected with COVID-19 and track who the infected person has been in contact with.
On the outside, this appears to be a creative way to track and maintain the spread of COVID-19. However, this tracking technology concerns many human rights activists. For starters, there is no end-date for the use of this technology. Many believe the Chinese government will continue to use the “health-scare” justification to track its citizens far after this global pandemic is over. Second, there has not been much transparency from the Chinese government as to how it reaches its decision in the color code it provides to each individual. Due to this, many believe that China will use this color-coded system to silence the government’s dissenters by giving them red codes and forcing them into isolation. This is especially troublesome since this pandemic broke out amid the Hong Kong protests. As Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “This is viewed as scary stuff from a human rights perspective…It is yet another way to gather information about people to potentially use it against them in ways which there’s no legal basis.”
It will surely be interesting to see if these predictions by human rights activists come true.
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