Hayward: Coronavirus Helps China’s Totalitarian Social Credit System Spread Worldwide

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 20: Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army's Honour Guard Battalion
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

While addressing a virtual summit of G20 nations on November 21, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping suggested the entire world should adopt a “QR Code” health tracking system similar to the one used in China.

The suggestion, if adopted, would mark Communist China’s latest effort to gain political advantage from the pandemic it unleashed, and bring the free world one step closer to implementing China’s totalitarian “social credit system.”

Xi told the G20 summit that a standardized global mechanism for certifying the health of travelers was needed to combat the Wuhan coronavirus and similar plagues in the future. He touted China’s use of a QR barcode system, which uses an app Chinese citizens are required to install on their cell phones.

The app displays a QR code – the square barcodes that have become widely used because they can easily be displayed on a phone screen and scanned by a wide range of devices – which can be checked whenever the individual enters a public venue or uses public transportation. The smartphone app connects to a central database that keeps track of when each citizen was last tested for the coronavirus and whether the results were negative.

“We hope more countries will join this mechanism. We need to further standardize policies and establish fast tracks to facilitate the orderly flow of people,” Xi asserted.

CNN noted that many nations would be skeptical of linking into a global health database, especially if Communist China has anything to do with managing it. Those concerns about privacy and sinister manipulation of sensitive personal data are well-founded.

The New York Times (NYT) reported in March that China’s QR code system was doing a lot more than just classifying its users based on coronavirus risk. The NYT said the mandatory health tracking app “also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.”

After discovering that Chinese officials and representatives from Alibaba, the Chinese tech giant that created the app, were furtive about explaining exactly how it works, the NYT hired some technicians to dig into the code, and they found a few nasty surprises:

The Times’s analysis found that as soon as a user grants the software access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” sends the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server. The software does not make clear to users its connection to the police. But according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and an official police social media account, law enforcement authorities were a crucial partner in the system’s development.

While Chinese internet companies often share data with the government, the process is rarely so direct. In the United States, it would be akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using apps from Amazon and Facebook to track the coronavirus, then quietly sharing user information with the local sheriff’s office.

The technicians discovered that every time the health QR code was scanned, at the entrance to public venues or “health checkpoints” dotting Chinese cities, the app transmitted their location to the central servers. As for the ostensible purpose of the app, flagging people with yellow or red warning flags if they were deemed too risky to travel, the system is completely opaque about how it makes those decisions, and there is no way for citizens to contest their alert ratings – not even the red rating that forces them into quarantine for two weeks.

The NYT noted the pandemic was a huge boost to China’s already enormous surveillance state, giving officials an opportunity to harvest even more information about citizens and make them even more accustomed to constant government tracking. The QR code might have seemed like a great convenience to people who were now required to furnish constant records of their travel to numerous central and municipal agencies. 

The designers of the QR system defended its intrusiveness by saying its algorithms needed access to a great deal of information about each individual to flag those who were probably at risk of spreading the coronavirus. This brings the QR codes into the orbit of China’s “social credit system,” a massive authoritarian tracking system that monitors the behavior of Chinese people in countless ways and assigns them “credit scores” based on the quality of their citizenship. 

As with the QR codes, the social credit system is completely opaque about how its judgments are rendered, and there is no way for ordinary citizens to appeal their ratings. Having a poor social credit score can prevent Chinese people from getting jobs, applying for benefits, or even boarding a train. The system does not just manipulate and intimidate Chinese citizens – it has already been employed to control foreign corporations and their employees.

The stage for something like the social credit system has already been set in Western nations, including the United States, where Big Tech and corporations have been privately cobbling together a sort of informal social credit system that restricts free speech and certain financial resources for people with the “wrong” politics. The coronavirus is nursing an even greater appetite for surveillance in the name of public health.

For example, CEO Alan Joyce of Australia’s Quantas airline said on November 24 that proof of Chinese coronavirus vaccination will become a non-negotiable requirement for traveling on his company’s planes and he suspected other carriers around the world would follow suit. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrisson hedged about whether the government would make vaccination mandatory, and legal experts wonder if various governments have the legal authority to do so – but, as with Big Tech censorship, organized corporate muscle can enforce rules that would not pass muster under national constitutions, including the American Constitution. If airlines decide to refuse service without proof of vaccination – perhaps with trains, buses, and even taxis and ride-sharing services making similar demands – health tracking could become mandatory in practice, even if not in law.

That will create an appetite for systems such as the one China imposed on its citizens, and Xi Jinping wishes to export to the world. There are people in the West, including in America, who are very eager to establish a system that automatically dispenses benefits and punishments according to their notions of good citizenship:

Some people are willing to threaten their fellow Americans with death for refusing to obey their notions of coronavirus safety. Once an automated health tracking system was established in the name of slaying the coronavirus dragon, it could easily be expanded to cover other health issues that put a strain on tight medical resources, from diet to exercise habits. Many political agenda items are presented as health issues, prominently including gun control.  

The system could then be expanded again to cover “poor citizenship” the same way China does, following the same logic: bad citizens impose disproportionate costs on the government, so the State has an interest in monitoring and controlling their behavior. 

The coronavirus pandemic may yet change our notions of privacy and make us comfortable with a level of surveillance that would have horrified previous generations. Once our comfort level with surveillance has been raised, the level of surveillance will never be lowered. If a vast international system of health status monitoring is brought online to combat Covid-19, it will never be taken offline. It will simply be given other things to track once the coronavirus is gone. The citizens of free countries might not be interested in what Xi Jinping was selling at the G20 virtual summit, but their political elites were a more receptive audience.


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