The cell phone applications that the governments of different countries have used to monitor and control the COVID-19 pandemic have put several organizations and human rights experts on the alert since their implementation. The data, location, and possible registration of individuals and group activities of people would remain in the hands of governments. This is considered not only a violation of privacy, but also runs great risks of being used as a tool for political and social control in the hands of totalitarian governments, as in the case of the Chinese Communist Party.

This type of application that works as a “health code” aims to control the movements of people with a traffic light system. Freedom of movement is given to those who present a green code (free of COVID), or people are forced into quarantine if they have a red code (virus carrier).

The following is an example of the tool’s use to extort and intimidate an individual whose spiritual practice is persecuted by the CCP.

Li Caigiong, 59 and a native of Sichuan province, has been a Falun Gong practitioner since 1998. Thanks to the physical and mental benefits the discipline brought her, she became a loyal follower, and the target of regime officials.

On the afternoon of September 28, while visiting a friend at her tailor shop, she heard the director of the local residential community, Luo Long, shout from outside, “Your health code has turned yellow. The government requires you to take the COVID-19 DNA test. If you don’t, your code will turn red.” Li learned right away that the code was arbitrarily changed from green to yellow by the authorities, and that her location was detected by the app on her cell phone.

Upon the practitioner’s denial that she had been exposed to the virus, Luo ordered her to accompany him, and together with another official they put her in a car and took her to the hospital.

After performing the nucleic acid test, and despite Li’s insistence that she return home alone, a group of plainclothes officers forced her into a car and took her to the Dongsheng Police Station.

Once inside, three officials from the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, who oversee the persecution of Falun Gong, attempted to force Li to sign documents pledging not to oppose communism and not to read books such as “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” or “Disintegrating the Culture of the Communist Party.” Nor could she participate in any activities related to Falun Gong. When she refused to sign, the officials threatened to ransack her house.

Despite the pressure, Li stood firm in her decision. Her fingerprints were taken and her belongings were confiscated.

Obsession with control

This is not the first time Li has suffered the consequences of the persecution of Falun Gong.

In 2000, she was arrested three times for defending the right to practice the discipline in Beijing. She was sentenced to two years at hard labor.

In 2003, she was charged with distributing Falun Gong materials and sentenced to four years in prison. Six months after her release, she was imprisoned again for sending a letter containing information about the discipline to an acquaintance in prison.

After her husband divorced her and she lost contact with her son due to constant pressure from the regime, she was imprisoned again in 2007 and sentenced to eight years for printing Falun Gong information material.

Li’s incredible perseverance and that of the millions of practitioners of the discipline baffles regime authorities, who, despite the use of the entire state apparatus and the most brutal means, are unable to achieve their goals.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual discipline of self-improvement with strong roots in ancient Chinese culture. Its principles of truth, benevolence and tolerance, along with a series of qigong exercises, made it very attractive and within a short time millions of people were practicing it. It was initially recognized and supported by the Chinese regime because of its powerful healing effects. In the late 1990s, because of its growing popularity and its teachings contrary to atheism, it became a threat to the CCP, leading to the beginning of one of the most brutal and bloody persecutions in history.

In Hong Kong, the mandatory use of the LeaveHomeSafe app sparked controversy among its citizens, knowledgeable about the regime’s tactics in monitoring the population. 

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Voice of America, “Given Beijing’s use of mass surveillance in China, many Hong Kong people suspect that the app is a way for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong.”

Some people chose to download fake apps on their cell phones, to escape monitoring, with the attendant risk. Using fake apps is considered as serious a crime as using a fake passport or visa, and offenders can face up to 14 years in prison.

In mid-June, media outlets reported that authorities in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan province used the app to restrict the arrival of demonstrators protesting against the freezing of their bank accounts. Several people testified that their health codes suddenly changed from green to red, preventing them from traveling to make the claim. According to CNN, the code red appeared to target only depositors.

Anouk Eigenraam, China correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad/Algemeen Dagblad, tweeted, “These red health codes are exactly why China will keep this ‘zero-COVID’ alive for a long time. It is very useful as a control tool. I have been saying this for a year and many people kept saying ‘but the economy,’ well, as we saw, they are very willing to take a hit.”

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