China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

Panic and paranoia set in as the government ramps up blanket tracking not designed for an outbreak.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight
A poster featuring people wearing protective masks is displayed near surveillance cameras in Shanghai. (PHOTOGRAPHER: QILAI SHEN/BLOOMBERG)

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For decades, China has been building and refining the ability to track its citizens’ whereabouts and interactions to contain dissent and protest. The state’s effort to try to contain the rapid spread of the new coronavirus is now testing the limits of that surveillance system.

To slow down any virus, it’s important to interrupt person-to-person transmission. Officials in China have used a mix of high- and low-tech methods to find and monitor people who may have been exposed to the virus, which has infected more than 77,600 and killed upwards of 2,600 in the country as of Feb. 24. Authorities have sourced data from phone carriers and called on private tech companies to set up virtual health hotlines in order to trace everyone who’s been in or near Hubei province, home to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. They’ve also activated an extensive network of Communist Party members and community groups, encouraging citizens to monitor neighbors’ vital signs and whereabouts.

A 25-year-old who studies in Wuhan told Bloomberg News he was surprised when officials found him about 300 miles (482 kilometers) north in his hometown of Henan. The postgraduate student, who asked not to be named because he feared police retaliation, left Wuhan in early January. Two weeks later, a Henan police officer called, saying he suspected the student had visited the seafood market where the virus is thought to have originated and asked if the student was feeling all right. Soon, the student was overwhelmed by calls and visits from health officials, police officers, and other authorities; doctors came to take his temperature daily for two weeks. He hadn’t contracted the virus. Overwhelmed, the student turned off his phone.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

Mobile phones—which, like social media accounts, are linked to Chinese citizens’ national identity numbers—are an integral part of China’s surveillance. Now they’re a key part of its virus-containment efforts. China’s big three state-owned phone carriers have responded to the call last month by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to contribute data to fight the outbreak. As of Feb. 12, China Mobile Ltd.’s 300-strong big-data team had fulfilled more than 400 government requests for data on people’s movement. China Telecom Corp. has helped 24 provinces install a system that lets officials and medical staff record and monitor people’s personal, health, and travel information. It’s also adding systems at office buildings that track people’s identities and health through facial recognition and automatic temperature gauges.

Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Alipay have helped the government develop a new, color-coded health-rating system to identify people as high-, medium-, or low-risk and monitor their movements.
The system, in use at offices, malls, and subways, scans people seeking to enter and allows or denies them access based on their ratings. Provinces including Hubei are requiring anyone selling cough or fever treatments to report the buyers’ identities to the government, and plan to use purchase data to find people who might be ill.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

Some of the new tools are intensifying the paranoia that’s setting in as some of China’s 1.4 billion people isolate themselves at home, with little to do but search the internet. Baidu Inc.’s map function now shows how crowded a neighborhood is so people can avoid congested areas, while WeChat has added functionality so users of its social network can see if they’re in the proximity of confirmed virus cases. WeChat and microblogging site Weibo have set up virtual hotlines on which people can report friends, family members, and neighbors who might be sick or who aren’t taking proper quarantine precautions.

Since late January, spreadsheets and lists identifying people living in or returning home from Wuhan have been circulating around social media, including Weibo. A Wuhan resident included in one of the lists says he recently received an influx of strange calls. The resident, who asks to remain anonymous to prevent further harassment, says he quarantined himself alone at home for 14 days because his parents both tested positive for the virus. His mother recovered after spending four days in the hospital, while his father remained at a local hospital.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

In recent weeks, China has turned to low-tech tactics. Across the country, scores of neighborhood committee members have been deployed to take people’s temperatures each day and record their whereabouts. Earlier this month, a group of young women in red down jackets and flimsy surgical masks went door-to-door in Beijing’s Shichahai neighborhood with clipboards to record residents’ temperatures, ID numbers, and recent travel. One, a party member who said she oversees 500 households, told a Bloomberg reporter that as a disease prevention measure, the community would now restrict outsiders from entering—including grocery deliverymen—on orders “from above.”

The panic and fear that blanket surveillance creates could actually undermine efforts to contain the epidemic. China had come under criticism for silencing doctors in Wuhan who suspected the virus was serious early on, and the suspicion facing people thought to be potentially ill could discourage the transparency needed to engender trust and fight an epidemic, says Stuart Hargreaves, a law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong who researches surveillance and privacy issues. “If you had an approach that encouraged the reporting of ‘negative’ information, rather than punishing it, then this outbreak might have been limited at a much earlier point,” he says.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

It’s also not clear that the use of mass surveillance will be effective. While it might seem useful to have full oversight of citizens’ movements and vital signs, making use of data of that scale requires manpower and training that China’s police force lacks, says Suzanne Scoggins, an assistant professor at Clark University. Scoggins, who researches policing and authoritarian control in China, says tracing the spread of a virus is different from tracking the movements of dissidents or criminals. “This is still relatively new technology that is likely being used in a way that is different from its original design,” Scoggins says. “It may help some, but we shouldn’t expect it to contain an outbreak.”

Blanket surveillance is different from so-called contact tracing, a practice that goes back centuries to map a disease’s spread, most famously when Dr. John Snow used it to find the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London—a water pump. The usefulness of high-tech surveillance tools will be limited until officials identify the incubation period of the new coronavirus and develop rapid diagnostic tests and effective treatment, says Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University and senior technical director of its global public health center, ICAP. Without a better understanding, “it’s going to make it much harder to effectively use the kind of cellphone and other data people are imagining,” says Justman, who has gone door-to-door across Africa, testing people for HIV to map its spread and provide them with treatment options.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

Person-to-person transmission of this coronavirus may be particularly difficult to stop because it may be highly infectious before symptoms are apparent, says Keiji Fukuda, the director of University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health and a former adviser to the World Health Organization on pandemic influenza. If patients don’t realize they’re sick, they’re less likely to stay home or take other precautions.

China’s Surveillance State Pushed to the Limits in Virus Fight

China’s surveillance system has long alarmed human rights advocates, who point to the detention of about 1 million Uighur and other Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, restrictions on the open web, and tightening social control. That’s led to concerns about how this new flood of tracking and data collection might be used by the government, even after the outbreak has passed. “We need to make it very clear what health authorities are doing and why they are doing it,” says Fukuda, who is advising Hong Kong's government on the coronavirus outbreak. “I think people are inherently suspicious and distrustful. So it’s really important—if you’re dealing with an outbreak—to explain there are good reasons to conduct disease surveillance.” —With Sharon Chen and Peter Martin

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Penty at, Janet PaskinPeter Elstrom

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.