China is using its authoritarian arsenal to crack down on anyone who might spread the Wuhan virus


The camera hovers just above the elderly woman’s head, as she looks up, her face becomes confused and worried.

a group of people in front of a computer: A staff member screens arriving passengers at Hankou railway station in Wuhan, on January 21, 2020.© -/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
A staff member screens arriving passengers at Hankou railway station in Wuhan, on January 21, 2020.

“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.

‘Severe punishment’

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.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a "people's war" to control the outbreak.© -/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a “people’s war” to control 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.”

a man and a woman standing in front of a building: A security personnel checks the temperature of passengers arriving at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on February 4, 2020.© NOEL CELIS/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
A security personnel checks the temperature of passengers arriving at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on February 4, 2020.

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.

Surveillance state

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.”

a person standing in front of a door: Government workers are see at a checkpoint outside a hotel accommodating isolated people in Wuhan, February 3, 2020.© Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Government workers are see at a checkpoint outside a hotel accommodating isolated people in Wuhan, February 3, 2020.

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,…

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