The camera hovers just above the elderly woman’s head, as she looks up, her face becomes confused and worried.
“Yes auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” a voice booms out. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask.”
The woman hurries off, occasionally looking over her shoulder as the drone continues to shout instructions: “You’d better go back home and don’t forget to wash your hands.”
This is China under quarantine in 2020. In another video promoted by state media, a police drone orders men sitting at an outdoor mahjong table to “stop playing and leave the site as soon as possible.”
“Don’t look at the drone,” it says, as a small child glances up curiously. “Ask your father to leave immediately.”
As Chinese authorities struggle to contain the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, they are turning to a sophisticated authoritarian playbook honed over decades of crackdowns on dissidents and undesirables to enforce quarantines and lockdowns across the country.
This has been accompanied by a shift in the narrative around the virus. It has moved from a story of an entire country pulling together in a time of crisis to a darker tale of bad actors undermining efforts to keep people safe and spreading the virus through their own irresponsibility.
Critics argue that this also serves to obfuscate myriad failures by the state as a whole, instead putting the blame on individual citizens and the occasional bad apple of an official. A pertinent example of this alleged tactic was the swift dispatch of anti-corruption officials to Wuhan after the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, whose death created huge anger and outrage online.
Speaking at a meeting of top officials Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “greater legislative, law enforcement, judicial and law observance efforts to strengthen the capacity to carry out law-based infection prevention and control.”
Laws around epidemic control “must be strictly enforced,” Xi said, as police around the country began cracking down on people accused of concealing their travel history to get around stringent quarantine measures.
In the northwestern province of Qinghai, police said one man is being investigated for “endangering public safety” after he was accused of “deliberately concealing” a recent journey to Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
“What’s particularly abominable is that (the man) also concealed his son’s return with him from Wuhan. His son has also been out and about multiple times and in close contact with crowds,” police said, adding that both had since been placed under quarantine.
Similar cases have been reported in at least four other provinces, and last week China’s top prosecutor issued a notice warning that anyone deemed to have deliberately transmitted the coronavirus, or who refuses to accept quarantine or treatment, will be “severely punished.”
Authorities in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang went even further. According to the state-backed Beijing News, they put out an announcement warning that the highest sentence for endangering public safety by intentionally transmitting the coronavirus “is the death penalty.”
The central government followed suit Saturday, announcing that a raft of medical crimes would carry severe punishment, including potential execution.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has maintained that both the government and the country’s citizens are united in their determination to fight the outbreak. “We mobilized the whole country, laid out an overall plan, responded swiftly, and adopted the most comprehensive, strictest measures to start a people’s war on preventing and controlling the outbreak,” he told US President Donald Trump in a phone call Friday, Xinhua reported.
As the virus spreads from China to a growing list of countries and regions, the World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global public health emergency.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on February 4 that “since the onset of the outbreak, China has taken unprecedentedly strict prevention and control measures, many of which far exceed WHO recommendations and (the International Health Regulations) requirements.”
China’s Foreign Ministry directed CNN’s request for comment on the effectiveness of the strict measures to contain the outbreak to the National Health Commission. CNN has reached out to the commission for comment.
Police in China are far better equipped for a crackdown in 2020 than they would have been in previous years, thanks to a vast surveillance panopticon that the state has built up nationwide, but previously not used to tackle something of this scale.
The most extreme example of this 21st century surveillance state is in the far western region of Xinjiang, where ubiquitous CCTV cameras and police checkpoints have been used to tightly control the movement and behavior of members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have been placed in “reeducation camps.”
Chinese companies have made millions building advanced facial recognition and AI-driven surveillance technology for police forces and local governments across the country. While the use of these tools nationwide is not as extreme as in Xinjiang, its rollout has been rapid, boosted by positive stories in state media about how AI cameras have been used to catch offenders or crack down on jaywalkers and other petty criminals.
Facial recognition, in particular, has become a normal part of many people’s lives, used in subways, office buildings, schools and even safari parks to check season-ticket holders.
In a 2018 report on Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch warned that China was building a “digital totalitarian state,” where draconian technologies used in the far west were quietly becoming the norm nationwide. The current crisis is providing insight into just how potentially close such a situation is to being realized, as the government turns to new technology to track potential virus carriers.
Speaking to state broadcaster CCTV, Li Lanjuan, a top official with the National Health Commission, explained how “in the era of big data, the movements of each person can be clearly understood.”
She gave the example of a man in Zhejiang in eastern China who reported symptoms but said he had not had any contact with anyone from Wuhan. “Then we checked the data and found that he had been in contact with three people from the epidemic area,” Li said.
Much of the data being used in this effort is from surveillance cameras or hoovered up from people’s devices, and likely most of the people being tracked had no idea this was possible. State media coverage, however, largely echoes Li’s passive tone – that the government has access to such information is seen as a natural occurrence in this modern “era of big data,” not the result of a potentially pervasive, invasive surveillance state.
Writing in the state-backed Global Times last month, technology analyst Chen Jing said that “in the past, it was unimaginable to track the movement of people on a large scale, and it required a lot of resources.”
“Nowadays, with the popularization of smart phones, various types of apps are increasingly infiltrating into daily life,” he said. “People’s activities create imprints in the electronic world, making big data tracking both technically possible (and) one of the most important developments of future technology.”
As well as high tech surveillance, China’s leaders have also turned to more traditional methods, initiating a mass mobilization – a term with echoes of the Mao Zedong era – to tackle the virus.
Speaking to police officials last week, Zhao Kezhi, head of the Ministry of Public Security, said that governments and Communist Party committees at all levels must give “top priority to the maintenance of political security” and “resolutely prevent” the outbreak from damaging “social stability.”
The fight against the virus was a “war,” Zhao said, adding that in a “wartime period … the role of grassroots Party organizations and Party members” should be increased and the “Party’s flag should be flown high on the front lines.”
Party organizations at the local level have been tasked with setting up a “grid management” system – a long-tested program for sweeping local surveillance and control – to monitor, track down and report on coronavirus cases, according to an emergency notice jointly issued last week by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Health Commission.
In the grid system, neighborhood committees will search for suspected cases door-to-door on a daily basis and report all information to the central authorities, the notice said.
The Party’s central leadership dispatched a “steering group” to Wuhan on Saturday, which ordered authorities to “round up everyone who needs to be rounded up” in effort to quarantine anyone infected or suspected to be infected with the virus, according to state media. The phrase has previously been used by Chinese government officials to describe the process of selecting members of the Uygur minority group to be sent to sprawling internment camps in Xinjiang.
Increasingly panicked by news reports of the virus’ spread and emboldened by calls for resolute action, many people have been taking matters into their own hands. There have been numerous unverified reports of people believed or confirmed to have the virus being forcibly confined in their apartments, while residents of Hubei and Wuhan have spoken of being discriminated against, refused access to buses or hotels.
While heath authorities have urged people not to discriminate, they have also approvingly cited “grassroots” efforts to control the virus, including villages barricading themselves off and instituting checkpoints.
Censors clamp down
Following revelations of how officials in Wuhan had downplayed news of the virus in the weeks after it was first detected, there was a brief relaxation of control of the media and discussion of the virus online.
That toleration for dissent and the repeated embarrassing stories unearthed by Chinese media in Wuhan once they were given free rein has now ended. In a meeting of top officials last Monday, Xi emphasized the importance of “public opinion guidance” and utilizing propaganda to “tell the story of China’s fight against the epidemic and show the Chinese people’s spirit of unity and togetherness.”
Since then, there have been numerous reports of Chinese and foreign journalists facing restrictions on reporting, and state media has begun emphasizing positive stories about the virus. Meanwhile, people have reported having their accounts on the messaging app WeChat blocked for sharing news about the virus, essentially cutting them off from China’s largest social network.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet censor, said this week that it had summoned tech company representatives for a meeting “for failing to handle illicit content published by users.”
The CAC called for internet watchdogs and content providers to “foster a good online atmosphere amid the country’s efforts to contain the epidemic.”
The death of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor, has challenged this more than anything, with censors working overtime to contain the outrage and stop it transforming into anything wider.
Li’s fate, however, exemplifies how individuals are increasingly being asked to sacrifice everything in the name of maintaining societal stability – and that of the Party.