At the 2020 Oslo Freedom Forum, the Human Rights Foundation hosted a panel discussion about data collection and censorship as it relates to governmental responses to the coronavirus. Panelists in this discussion included New York Times technology correspondent Paul Mozur and the Telegraph’s China correspondent Sophia Yan. Watch the full session.
In China, censorship is a key component of the CCP’s authoritarian playbook. Access to information is tightly restricted, as the state fears too much information would lead to instability. However, as the novel coronavirus emerged in Hubei at the beginning of 2020, that same censorship and suppression of information led to devastating consequences.
Information is crucial during a public health crisis, as is transparency; China’s response to COVID-19 included neither. Instead, China reacted with more censorship, more repression, and an increased invasion of privacy in data and technology, with far-reaching impacts on Chinese society.
From the beginning, China did not provide the rest of the world with a clear picture of what was occurring within China’s borders. While the CCP promotes a narrative internationally in which China was successful at containing the virus, in reality, Chinese hospitals were overwhelmed, to the point of not being able to take in or provide tests for new patients.
The lockdowns were implemented with little warning, in such a way that people did not have time to prepare, or even get back to their homes in time before the cities were sealed off. In many ways, the government’s response was hampered by reliance on censorship and tech, and the ways in which those attempts at data collection fell short: for instance, health codes on citizens’ phones were supposed to indicate whether they should be quarantining or were allowed to be in public, but the system was glitchy and plagued by technological issues.
Furthermore, the scale of censorship that exists undercut the state’s ability to respond to the early warning signs of the disease’s emergence: theoretically, since the state monitors all communications, those alarm bells should have been readily caught. Instead, they were absorbed by the extent of repression of free speech on social media, delaying what could have been a rapid government response.
Despite those instances of ineffectiveness, however, the question about data collection and individual privacy still remains, in any state that uses an emergency to justify increased data collection. When the emergency is over, what happens to that data? Who owns and controls it?
In terms of the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak in China, a few themes have been emerging. The CCP has been trying to control the narrative, offering a timeline that effectively glosses over their early missteps in handling the virus, as well as feeding into a rise of nationalism and xenophobia, particularly directed against Americans (partly in response to rhetoric in the United States blaming China for its response to COVID).
Ultimately, by repeating that pro-CCP narrative over and over again, and ensuring that citizens have access to few, if any, alternative narratives, it’s possible to indoctrinate civilians into believing the story. Young people, especially, are more pliant and easier for the authorities to control; they have been brought up surrounded by nationalistic rhetoric and have been spoon-fed the CCP’s messaging.
This control of messaging is also important to the CCP on an international level. The pandemic has exacerbated a fissure between the CCP and the West, especially regarding human rights issues. Combined with recent incidents of racism and xenophobia in China, it has been enough to make the rest of the world wake up and acknowledge what the CCP is doing, sparking a general turn against China, coinciding with the fact that China is set to host the Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
However, at the same time that the CCP is pushing a narrative of success at home, the response to the virus was the first time many ordinary Chinese citizens felt the long arm of the state in their own lives. Many people are upset at the way the pandemic was handled, and that sentiment has not gone away. Somewhat surprisingly, there are ongoing legal cases in Hubei courts for reparations due to government negligence. That concept of reparations has gained traction, despite the level of control the state exerts over every individual’s data and private life.
The opacity of decision-making from the CCP’s authoritarian regime has undermined public trust in the process, and the lack of trust that the CCP placed in Chinese citizens is something those citizens will not forget. Deep scars remain in society after the lockdowns in Wuhan and Hubei.