China Brief
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Will China Use Health Apps to Crack Down on Dissent?

Public patience with COVID-19 restrictions is fraying, and a sprawling network of control already exists.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A health worker helps people obtain a code to be able to be tested for COVID-19 in Shanghai on March 14.
A health worker helps people obtain a code to be able to be tested for COVID-19 in Shanghai on March 14.
A health worker helps people obtain a code to be able to be tested for COVID-19 in Shanghai on March 14. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Recent reports raise concerns about authorities using COVID-19 health apps to crack down on dissent, China’s navy launches its third aircraft carrier, and the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act takes effect.

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Are China’s COVID-19 Restrictions Permanent?

Critics have long warned that China could turn its COVID-19 restrictions toward controlling dissent. Travel within China now relies on loosely integrated health care apps that vary between cities and provinces, raising concerns. Since last week, there have been more reports that these systems were used to block people from protesting in Zhengzhou, Henan province, after a bank fraud scandal. Meanwhile, a local woman sued the Henan provincial government for allegedly changing her COVID-19 status, preventing her from attending a court hearing.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which disease becomes a permanent excuse for political control—but it doesn’t seem that likely. First, the excuse works only when people see the restrictions as necessary, and it seems that is ceasing to be the case in China. Although there is still decent public support, frustration with government restrictions is increasingly obvious both online and offline. Lockdowns in Shanghai dealt a huge blow to the zero-COVID policy, but the daily intrusions of apps and testing are also fraying nerves.

Furthermore, the debate over the Zhengzhou cases has played out in public, with major media outlets and pro-government figures such as Hu Xijin criticizing the local government. That suggests that the central government wants to maintain the credibility of restrictions and that it’s possible local officials may face consequences. The debate around a particular subject—and especially a sensitive subject—can change rapidly in China, but for now there is little sign that the central government approves of controls like those used in Zhengzhou.

Anti-protest measures often involve tricky negotiations between local and central governments. Local governments generally want to quash dissent, while the central government may want to know what people are protesting against—particularly if it involves local officials. This tension traditionally played out through the petition system, a route for locals to bring their complaints to Beijing. Local government agents sought to stop petitioners from reaching the capital. Even if individual petitioners were unsuccessful, the volume of petitions that reached Beijing could reflect poorly on a particular local area.

But tools of top-down control—just like the COVID-19 health care apps—can easily become weapons for local authorities, even if that’s not their explicit purpose. When the central government introduced real name policies for buying train tickets in 2012, local authorities found a new mechanism to control potential petitioners: putting their names on blacklists at the station, making it impossible for them to travel to Beijing.

Rather than the health care apps remaining in place in the long-term future, I expect elements of the COVID-19 control system to be integrated into China’s existing network of surveillance and control. After all, the first COVID-19 restrictions often involved existing systems operating at their full capacity: locking gates that were normally open, switching on facial recognition systems where they were previously too inconvenient, and using the real-name train system to keep track of who had traveled through Wuhan.

These systems are generally too costly—in terms of time, effort, and money—to keep running all the time. A recent New York Times investigation, using documents provided by ChinaFile, shows how much money China is already spending on such measures. Even in Xinjiang, where the government has pushed the system to its limits to control and imprison the Uyghur population, some controls have now been relaxed for the sake of tourism.

How long harsh restrictions remain in place after COVID-19 outbreaks dissipate depends on how much the central government fears dissent, how far public tolerance can be pushed, and how much an already burdened economy can take.

What We’re Following

Beijing, Shanghai updates. When it comes to controlling COVID-19, outbreaks in both Beijing and Shanghai have seemingly returned to a simmer. Half-lockdowns and sudden closures are likely to be the norm for a while. The authorities are also working hard to vaccinate the elderly, turning to more coercive measures in some localities, such as threatening to cut off benefits. (For months, they have struggled to reach the rural elderly in particular.)

China may be softening the ground for a more relaxed policy, both by ensuring vaccinations prevent deaths and convincing the public of the idea that the omicron variant is relatively mild. A new study endorsed by Beijing’s top COVID-19 czar claims that only a small fraction of people hospitalized during Shanghai’s major outbreak developed serious illness, but it’s not clear how genuine those numbers are, given that the official death toll at the time raised questions.

When China does open up, it’s likely the official statistics will play down the inevitable deaths and hospitalizations that result.

Aircraft carrier launch. Last Friday, China launched the Fujian, its third aircraft carrier after the domestically produced Shandong (launched in 2017) and the Soviet-era Liaoning (purchased from Ukraine and relaunched in 2012). The ship won’t be combat-ready for several years, but it marks an important step in upgrading China’s fleet—using newer launch methods that even U.S. carriers have just begun to integrate.

However, the Chinese navy remains a long way behind its U.S. counterpart, and its aircraft carriers may be aimed at smaller, third-party states, as Sam Roggeveen argues in Foreign Policy. Nevertheless, the launch came with a strong dose of nationalism.

Tangshan attack fallout. After a video of a brutal attack against three women by local gang members spurred nationwide outrage, Tangshan has been stripped of its status as a “national civilized city.” The Chinese Communist Party’s central committee grants the honorary title, which is relatively routine: Nearly half of all Chinese cities can claim to be a national civilized city. The move nevertheless reflects the central government’s attempt to divert the story away from women’s safety to Tangshan’s supposed failings.

Some local police officers have already faced discipline, and it’s possible that other Tangshan officials will too. The attack also triggered a burst of fear and outrage about women’s rights in China, although authorities censored some feminist accounts. The public’s primary concern now is that the Tangshan attackers will escape justice thanks to their local connections—and whether the women who were attacked are OK.

Tech and Business

U.S. implements Uyghur forced labor law. After passing last December, the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect this week, which may cause further disruption in U.S.-China trade. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs work under effective slave labor as part of the Chinese government’s assault on Uyghur society and culture. Many U.S. firms source materials from the region, and the act places a burden on them to prove the absence of coerced labor in their supply chains.

Unsurprisingly, China is furious. It’s likely that firms, especially those based outside of the United States that still need to comply with U.S. law, will come under pressure: China has passed numerous anti-sanctions measures targeted at U.S. regulations since 2015. Beijing may also use unofficial boycotts against U.S. companies that change their sourcing, as it has previously against Australia, South Korea, Lithuania, and Norway—to name just a few.

Read about the battles to get the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed in Congress here.

Crypto crash. China is pushing an anti-cryptocurrency position following the recent market downturn, with state media warning that bitcoin is “heading to zero.” Social media platform Weibo has banned many prominent cryptocurrency accounts and censored discussions of bitcoin and other tokens. The government cracked down on cryptocurrency miners last September, after years of general hostility toward the currencies, which Beijing sees as a vehicle for fraud and money laundering.

China Brief gives credit where it is due: It’s hard to fault China for these policies. Although Silicon Valley continues to invest heavily in a Web3 vision that seems both unclear and costly, Chinese markets were already burned by peer-to-peer lending fraud. China is invested in its own plans for the digital yuan, which doesn’t use blockchain technology, but they remain at an early and experimental stage.

Alibaba unwinds. Online retail giant Alibaba and the Ant Group, which controls the pay service Alipay, are under pressure to detach their operations further from each other. Both companies, separated 11 years ago, are owned by founder and billionaire Jack Ma. In late 2020, Ant Group attempted an initial public offering that would have been the world’s largest but was blocked by regulators, marking the beginning of a government crackdown on the technology industry.

Ma, once critical of government policies to a limited degree, has since been silent in public, and the firm is edging closer to a possible deal to allow a new IPO. Regulators’ concerns weren’t just political: The intertwining of monopolized services on single platforms is a major worry.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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