How a global health crisis turns into a state-run surveillance opportunity | John Naughton

A colour-coded contagion-risk app being rolled out across China doubles as a means of social control

When Barack Obama was US president, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had a useful motto: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Chinese authorities have clearly taken this to heart – as evidenced by the unprecedented scale of their geographical lockdowns and quarantining, restrictions on movement, industrial slowdowns and heightened surveillance.

At this distance, it’s impossible to judge how effective these measures really are. But all the experienced China-watchers of my acquaintance tell me that one should never underestimate the gap between realities on the ground and the story as told from Beijing. An instructive illustration of this is provided by a fascinating dispatch from Wuhan in the London Review of Books. It’s by Wang Xiuying (who describes himself as “a pessimist who’s trying hard to stay positive in self-quarantine”). He tells of a good deal of local chaos and serious tensions between the provincial authorities and the big cheeses in Beijing. He also describes great local heroism (particularly among health workers) and self-sacrifice. All of which sounds more plausible to me.

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