Gender, surveillance, and rights in China during Covid-19

Cai Yiping

In this article, Chinese feminist Cai Yiping recounts her experiences and encounters as she travels across China during the pandemic which, at the time of writing this, had forced 1.4 billion to hibernate.

Yiping traces the ways in which the Covid-19 crisis has amplified existing inequalities, allowed for increased surveillance by the government, and left the poor and marginalized more vulnerable than ever before.

In the end, she underpins the importance of kindness, sympathy, and solidarity to counter fear and mistrust in times of a pandemic. At the same time, she impresses upon us the need to hold people in power accountable.

On January 20, while speaking to China Central Television, 83-year-old Dr. Zhong Nanshan —who became a national hero for his courage to speak the truth during the SARS epidemic in 2003—announced on behalf of a high-level medical expert group, the National Commission on Health, that the new coronavirus pneumonia discovered in Wuhan could be spreading among people. It had been more than a month since the official announcement of the first confirmed case in the Wuhan, Hubei province in central China. The next morning, I took a train from Beijing to Tianjin, my hometown to visit my parents for Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival.

There were only a few passengers on the public transportation. Almost everyone wore a mask on trains and buses. In Beijing and Tianjin, the two major vibrant metropolitan cities in China, I hardly saw any vehicles or pedestrians except in the popular bakery shops where patrons queued up to buy food for Spring Festival — an unusual one in our lifetime. Two days later, just before the Chinese New Year, Wuhan was put under a lockdown. Soon, the lockdown was extended to the entire country to slow down the spread of the virus. It was as if the virus had pressed a magic pause button and forced a country with a population of 1.4 billion to hibernate.

However, some people were called upon to 'wage a war' on the virus, the vicious and cunning enemy which people still knew little about. Doctors and nurses from across the country were deployed in Wuhan and the Hubei province to support a health system on the verge of collapse as patients flooded the corridors desperately seeking diagnoses and treatment. By mid-April, it was reported that a total of 42,600 medical personnel supported Hubei, and women accounted for two-thirds of them.

By mid-April, it was reported that a total of 42,600 medical personnel supported Hubei, and women accounted for two-thirds of them.

One hundred days have passed since the Wuhan lockdown. Spring has arrived. Children play in the parks as schools remain closed. Major cities are witnessing traffic jams again. People tired of eating home cooked food can finally dine out in their favorite restaurants. It seems as though life has returned to normal, except that everyone has to wear a mask whenever they go out of their homes and are required to present the code generated in their cellphone apps indicating that they are not from a high-risk area, or have met the quarantine requirements. In China, new confirmed Covid-19 cases are mostly among Chinese who have returned from overseas.

April 4th is China’s national day of mourning dedicated to over 4,000 lives taken by Covid-19. Many of these deaths could have been avoided, if appropriate responses —some as simple as openness and transparency about the epidemic or allowing doctors and media to tell the truth —were taken by the authorities in the early stages of the outbreak.

The Covid-19 crisis is not a great equalizer, it is a great amplifier, which reveals and intensifies many crises we have long undergone.

The Covid-19 crisis is not a great equalizer, it is a great amplifier, which reveals and intensifies many crises we have long undergone — inequality, patriarchy, violence and discrimination, the crisis of care, the deficit in democracy and governance, ecological unsustainability and more. In addition to the rising curve of Covid-19 cases, what disheartens me is the gender stereotyping of women in media – “nine-months pregnant nurse keeps working on her post”, “a nurse returns to work in the hospital ten days after her miscarriage”, “women doctors and nurses shaved their heads before going to support Wuhan”, “the local government says, in order for men to return to work with peace of mind, women should stay at home to take care of their children", etc. While the contribution of women health workers at the center of the battle against the epidemic is complimented in the public domain, their needs are far from recognized. In the private sphere, the gender division of labor and the status of women as the principal caregivers are left intact, ideologically and practically.

China aims to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020. It is not yet possible to assess how the epidemic will affect the achievement of this goal. Undoubtedly, the epidemic exacerbates the struggles faced by the poor and the vulnerable – people living in remote rural areas, migrant workers, gig workers, people with disabilities, and people affected by HIV, among others.

Undoubtedly, the epidemic exacerbates the struggles faced by the poor and the vulnerable.

For example, as education has moved online, not every student has had the privilege of participation. According to some news reports, a girl from the mountainous regions of the Sichuan province could only access the internet while she sat on the edge of a cliff. Another girl from a poor family in the Henan province died by suicide because she had no money to buy a mobile phone to take part in online class. Even with fairly good infrastructure and facilities, online learning comes with challenges in China. Medical college students found that often PPTs could not be displayed properly during online lectures because they contained  images of naked human bodies, which were automatically read by artificial intelligence programs as illegal content or pornography. This even as the quarantine, lockdown, and social distancing has meant that people are more reliant on the internet than ever before — to access news and information, stay in touch with family and friends, purchase groceries, and for the purposes of education, work, and entertainment.

As Robin Li, the CEO of the largest Chinese search engine company Baidu, put it, the ugly truth is that the “Chinese people are willing to give up privacy for convenience”. In the context of the epidemic, this is no longer a hypocritical choice, but an enforced obligation. At the gate of the subdivision where I reside in the southern suburb of Beijing, the facial recognition system has been activated, although it can easily be flummoxed by face masks. Every resident and visitor who enters or exits the community needs to verify the Health Code on their mobile phone. It is a system that was first introduced in Hangzhou. This project, initiated by the local government with the help of Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, is now being rolled out nationwide in collaboration with other telecom companies and internet service providers. People sign up through their mobile phones and are assigned a color code – green (symptom-free or no contagion), yellow (had contact with an infected person or had not finished quarantine), or red (infected or had symptoms and waiting for a diagnosis) – that indicates their health status and determines whether they are allowed to enter malls, subways, board an airplane or a train, or check in to a hotel. How the color is being assigned is yet to be made public. The information and personal data gathered via apps is shared with the police. In these ways, the pandemic has accelerated the process of digitalization and escalated citizen surveillance to a new level. To be sure, China is not the only country in the world that uses contact-tracing technology to fight the spread of Covid-19. But there is no indication or information on how long this could persist after the epidemic subsides.

Kindness, sympathy, and solidarity can mitigate the fear and mistrust in times of social distancing as we see in many places in China and the world.

All along my journey from Europe to Beijing at the end of March, I was able to experience the impressive efficiency of the new system. I received phone calls from the police officer in the city where I was in quarantine (because no international flights were allowed to land in Beijing) and from the community workers at my residential subdivision to inquire about my travel plans. On the train to Beijing, it took no time for the conductor to identify me in the cabin full of passengers and to double-check my ID and Covid-19 testing certificate. In Beijing, just outside the gate of the compound where I live, once again I was asked to register my ID, address, contact number, and itinerary and show the security guard the code I was assigned, although they had all this information in advance.

This was the longest journey back home and it took more than half a month, including 14 days in quarantine in a hotel in the city outside Beijing. There were some unforgettable moments as well – when the cabin crew of Air China greeted the passengers, majority of whom were young Chinese students studying in Europe, with a “welcome home” during boarding; when a young man handed me a red carnation upon checking out of the hotel, a gift to every guest who has ended the quarantine and said “wish you a safe trip”; when I received an SMS from the community worker with whom I had been in contact with for more than a month since my tickets were changed several times, saying “Your pass (without it, I am not able to enter and exit my compound) is ready for pick up at the gate. I am so glad to know you are finally back home safely”; when the train conductor whispered to me, “I knew you just returned from abroad, so I needed to check your ID and certificate of testing. But I don’t want other passengers to feel that you were treated differently”. 

All these people diligently perform their duties. But it is the way they do it, with understanding, respect, and humanity, that could make a difference. Kindness, sympathy, and solidarity can mitigate the fear and mistrust in times of social distancing. Denial, arrogance, discrimination, and scapegoating are as deadly as the virus.

In China, discrimination and blame may fall on the people of Wuhan and Hubei and now on foreigners and Chinese returning from overseas. Outside China, the scapegoats could be Chinese or East Asian-looking people; people of a certain ethnicity or religion, sexual orientation and gender identity; and migrants, etc. This list has always functioned as a good reminder for us to reflect on who is at the bottom of the power structure in any given context and the need to hold the people in power accountable.


This article was first published on DAWN website. Cai Yiping is a DAWN Executive Committee member.


This article is part of our series on the coronavirus and its impact.