At a meeting of the Central Committee in Beijing on 14 February 2020, President Xi Jinping conceded that the COVID-19 epidemic in Hubei had exposed shortcomings in China’s preparedness and early warning systems. “The foundations of emergency management,” he declared, “need to be strengthened.” In particular, he stressed the importance of high-tech tools in the fight against epidemics:
The use of digital technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence and cloud computing must be encouraged so that they can serve as a pillar in the monitoring and analyzing of outbreaks, tracing viruses, epidemic control and prevention, medical treatment and distribution of resources.
Xi’s admission of the need to upgrade the tech component of the state’s anti-epidemic armamentarium raises a crucial question: how is it that the People’s Republic of China’s prodigious investment in high-tech surveillance to date seems to have played a relatively minor role in the campaign against COVID-19? Where was the state’s all-seeing surveillance system when it was most needed?
Outside China, there has been extensive coverage of the country’s rapidly expanding domestic surveillance capabilities. Concerns over the wider implications of this digital authoritarianism have been an aspect of the ongoing controversy in the UK over plans to allow the Chinese company Huawei to build part the new 5G-network infrastructure, particularly given US security concerns. Huawei, along with other companies, including Tencent (the developers of the WeChat app), have been key partners of the Chinese state in deepening and extending the scope of cyberspace security management, pushing new AI capacity and big-data analysis.
Under Xi’s leadership, China has built up an unprecedented mass surveillance network to monitor its citizens. Millions of CCTV cameras have been installed, in addition to a panoply of digital technologies that are used to track citizens’ daily activities. A social credit ranking system has encouraged the rapid encroachment of surveillance into almost every walk of life. Today, citizens are governed by the state’s imperative to see, which is summed up—at least in the Western media—by cutting-edge facial-recognition glasses used by Chinese police for law enforcement.
In the main, however, as during SARS in 2003, the principal technologies employed to contain the coronavirus have been low tech: isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing. There have been numerous publicized exceptions, of course. At a media debriefing in Beijing on 24 February, Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared that China had taken “an old approach and then turbo-charged it with modern science and modern technology.” Drones have been deployed to spray disinfectant, monitor public spaces, and target citizens who aren’t wearing masks. Thermal-imaging technology and infrared cameras have also been used to surveil those in quarantine, including patients admitted to the new purpose-built hospital in Wuhan. Different data-collecting tools have helped to identify and track individuals who may be at risk from infection. Residents on housing estates have been required to register through an app.
These tech interventions have stood out, however, precisely because they have taken place against a larger backdrop of low tech. Images of checkpoints and secured buildings have reinforced this yesteryear technology. It has been less a ‘surgical strike’ response than a boots-on-the-ground intervention involving the mobilization of police and military personnel reminiscent of a Mao-era campaign. Loudspeakers have blasted out public announcements, warning citizens not to gather, and to wear masks and wash their hands. Banners with patriotic slogans have been conspicuous, urging citizens to remain vigilant and uphold their patriotic duty. One such banners declares “Those who don’t report their fever are class enemies hiding among the people.” Images of outbreak prevention and control patrol teams on horseback with flags sum up these old-world practices that have predominated. As does the photograph taken by a colleague in Erdos, again in Inner Mongolia, of an official notice plastered across the door of her apartment, requesting that she contact security. Local authorities had gone on house-to-house visitations across the neighbourhood while she was away, sealing empty homes. So much for the all-seeing state.
China’s state-sponsored high-tech revolution has been a backstory to the coronavirus epidemic. Some have sought to explain this by arguing that specific features of the COVID-19 outbreak have undermined the efficiency of China’s surveillance system. For example, the wearing of face masks has thwarted the effectiveness of facial-recognition technology. However, instead of attributing the outbreak to a surveillance glitch—as Xi suggested when he spoke of inadequate preparation to meet emergencies—another argument would be that the system’s success has in fact helped to fuel, rather than contain, the epidemic.
Public health is reliant upon the timely sharing of information, but the harvesting of data by a surveillance state acts as a check on this timeliness. It impedes the kind of open communication that is the basis of prevention. At the same time, the use of strategic high-tech as a means of ensuring social order and political conformity has fostered a blanket approach to threats. The state’s dispersed gaze has accumulated vast amounts of data that it has been unable to integrate. In other words, the very apparatuses of the all-seeing system have created blind spots. This is the missing, untapped “dark data” that remain invisible. The default focus during the COVID-19 outbreak has been on tracking the movement of people. This has limitations, since it won’t detect those who are asymptomatic or undiagnosed. The shortage of diagnostic kits has meant that the one crucial object which has been difficult to see has been SARS-CoV-2.
China’s much-vaunted surveillance infrastructure represents a form of cruel optimism, wherein the pledge to see everything has become a hindrance to seeing. The unachievable condition of omniscience—from tracking viral spillovers to monitoring the circulation of asymptomatic COVID-19 spreaders—has meant that seeing as a meaningful operation has been undermined. Overhauling and further extending surveillance will not aid in the prevention of disease, any more than the proposal to implement draconian new biosecurity legislation will forestall future outbreaks. Instead, what is required is less, not more seeing. Doubtless the opposite will happen: COVID-19 will serve as another opportunity to expand the surveillance state in ways that may well jeopardise, rather than further, the cause of public health. And few will object, since in the rapidly technologizing domain of global health, seeing is believing.
 Jane Cai and Zhuang Pinghui, ‘China to fast-track biosecurity law in coronavirus aftermath,’ South China Morning Post (February 17, 2020). Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3051045/china-fast-track-biosecurity-law-coronavirus-aftermath (accessed February 19, 2020).
 ‘Xi: Outbreak’s lessons must be learned,’ China Daily (February 14, 2020). Available at: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/uS1aEaindfPN6N4ZPltZgQ (accessed February 19, 2020).
 Kevin Rawlinson, ‘Why the controversy over Huawei technology in UK networks?’ The Guardian (January 13, 2020).
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/13/why-the-controversy-over-huawei-technology-in-uk-networks (accessed February 19, 2020).
 Josh Chin, ‘Chinese police add facial-recognition glasses to surveillance arsenal,’ The Wall Street Journal (February 7, 2018). Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-police-go-robocop-with-facial-recognition-glasses-1518004353 (accessed February 19, 2020).
 ‘Press conference of WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19’ (February 24, 2020). Available at: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/transcripts/joint-mission-press-conference-script-english-final.pdf?sfvrsn=51c90b9e_2 (accessed February 26, 2020).
 See http://sz.people.com.cn/n2/2020/0208/c202846-33776737.html (accessed February 19, 2020; in Chinese).
 Raymond Zhong and Paul Mozur, ‘To tame coronavirus, Mao-style social control blankets China,’ The New York Times (February 15, 2020). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/15/business/china-coronavirus-lockdown.html (accessed February 20, 2020).
 For examples of such slogans in English, see: https://supchina.com/2020/02/11/all-the-hilariously-aggressive-coronavirus-banners-found-in-china/ (accessed February 19, 2020).
 Michael Edelstein et al., ‘Strengthening global public health surveillance through data and benefit sharing,’ Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol.27, no.7 (July 2018). Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/24/7/15-1830_article (accessed February 25, 2020).
 David J. Hand, Dark Data: Why What You Don’t Know Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
 Sui-Lee Wee, ‘As deaths mount, China tries to speed up coronavirus testing,’ The New York Times (February 9, 2020). Available at: nytimes.com/2020/02/09/world/asia/china-coronavirus-tests.html (accessed February 19, 2020).
 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Robert Peckham is MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine, Chair of the Department of History, and Director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Epidemics in Modern Asia (Cambridge, 2016).
- #COVID19: The Spectacle of Real-Time Surveillance
- Virtual Technologies of Care in a Time of Viral Crisis: An Ethnographic View from Hong Kong
- Beyond Quarantine Critique
- Echoes of Ebola: social and political warnings for the COVID-19 response in African settings
- Health Messaging and Napkin Epidemiology in the Netherlands