China’s Covid-Era Controls May Outlast the Coronavirus

The police had warned Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer, not to go to Shanghai to visit the mother of a dissident. He went to the airport anyway.

His phone’s health code app — a digital pass indicating possible exposure to the coronavirus — was green, which meant he could travel. His home city, Changsha, had no Covid-19 cases, and he had not left in weeks.

Then his app turned red, flagging him as high risk. Airport security tried to put him in quarantine, but he resisted. Mr. Xie accused the authorities of meddling with his health code to bar him from traveling.

“The Chinese Communist Party has found the best model for controlling people,” he said in a telephone interview in December. This month, the police detained Mr. Xie, a government critic, accusing him of inciting subversion and provoking trouble.

Emboldened by their successes in stamping out Covid, Chinese officials are turning their sharpened surveillance against other risks, including crime, pollution and “hostile” political forces. This amounts to a potent techno-authoritarian tool for Mr. Xi as he intensifies his campaigns against corruption and dissent.

The foundation of the controls is the health code. The local authorities, working with tech companies, generate a user’s profile based on location, travel history, test results and other health data. The code’s color — green, yellow or red — determines whether the holder is allowed into buildings or public spaces. Its use is enforced by legions of local officials with the power to quarantine residents or restrict their movements.

For all of its outward sophistication, though, China’s surveillance system remains labor intensive. And while the public has generally supported Beijing’s intrusions during the pandemic, privacy concerns are growing.

“China’s pandemic controls have really produced great results, because they can monitor down to every individual,” said Mei Haoyu, 24, an employee at a dental hospital in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China, who worked as a volunteer early in the pandemic.

“But if after the pandemic ends these means are still there for the government,” he added, “that’s a big risk for ordinary people.”

In a county in southwestern Sichuan Province, the ranks of grid workers tripled to more than 300 over the course of the pandemic, said Pan Xiyu, 26, one of the new hires. Ms. Pan, who is responsible for about 2,000 residents, says she spends much of her time distributing leaflets and setting up loudspeakers to explain new measures and encourage vaccination.

Ms. Pan, the grid worker, said her job was easier now than at the start of the pandemic. Then, residents often argued when told to scan their health codes or wear masks. Now, she said, people have come to accept the health measures.

Some government critics warn that the costs will go far beyond inconvenience.

Wang Yu, a well-known human rights lawyer, says she believes the authorities have weaponized the health code to try to stop her from working. In November, as she was returning to Beijing after a work trip, she tried to log her travel on her health code app, as required. But when she selected Jiangsu Province, the drop-down menu listed only one city, Changzhou, where she had not been and which had just recorded several infections. If she chose that, she would most likely be refused entry to Beijing.

In the past, security officers had to physically follow her to interfere with her work. Now, she worries, they can restrict her movements from afar.

“Wherever you go, you’ll never be lost,” said Ms. Wang, who stayed with relatives in Tianjin until her app abruptly returned to normal a month later.

Less high-profile critics are vulnerable, too. Several local governments have pledged to keep a close eye on petitioners — people who travel to Beijing or other cities to lodge complaints about officials — because of their supposed potential to violate travel restrictions.

The health code “can also easily be used as a dirty trick for stability maintenance,” said Lin Yingqiang, a longtime petitioner from Fuzhou, in southeastern China. He said that he was taken off a train by the police ahead of a party leaders’ meeting in November. His health code app turned yellow, requiring that he return to Fuzhou for quarantine, though he had not been anywhere near a confirmed case.

Joy Dong, Liu Yi and Li You contributed reporting and research.

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