17. June 2022 | China’s government is showing what can be done with digital health passes in conjunction with tests and vaccinations as conditions for access to buildings and means of transport. Those who show intention to take part in public protests, have the color of their health app set to red. Some liberal democracies, including Germany, have already gone some way down a similiar path. And the digital health passport is set to become a permanent fixture in the EU.
A report by Reuters news agency titled “China bank protest stopped by health codes turning red,” should give everyone reason to think again who thinks vaccination cards and their associated apps are a harmless and useful technological achievement .
Reuters reports that depositors at three banks in central China, who were suffering from frozen assets, were prevented from participating in protests by authorities turning their health apps to red, as several depositors told the news agency. The provincial government and China’s Ministry of Interior, which were contacted by Reuters, did not comment. The National Health Commission said the use of health codes should not be expanded without permission.
Depositors planned to travel to Henan province from across China to protest a nearly two-month block on access to deposits due to an updating in internal banking procedures, according to the report.
Then something happend what civil rights groups, not only in China, have warned could happend. The COVID surveillance infrastructure was used to suppress dissent. In many provinces in China, a green light on the Covid smartphone app is a prerequisite for access to public transportation, restaurants and shopping malls, and many other facilities.
“They are putting digital handcuffs on us,” Reuters quotes one bank customer as saying. After bank customers registered their travel plans online, as required by Covid restrictions, the Covid status suddenly turned red for many, according to those affected. For others, they had turned red after they identified themselves with the Covid app for the first time at the site of the planned protests.
For those affected, this means not only that they are unable to participate in the protests, but they are being punished for the mere intention by having virtually nowhere to go at their place of residence, not even to work
We are not immune to such abuses
No one should take comfort in the thought that something like this can only happen in an authoritarian state like China. There are similar examples from supposedly liberal democracies. Recall how the Canadian government stopped protests by truckers against the draconian Corona vaccination rules by declaring a state of emergency and freezing the bank accounts of all participating truckers and all their supporters. Had the government of Canada had a similar extensive system of centrally managed digital access controls as China, it would surely have preferred to use it to stop the protests.
In Germany, people who wanted to protest the Corona measures were quite deliberately deterred and latently criminalized with Corona requirements, or very often the demonstrations were banned altogether with reference to the alleged Corona risk, while more well-liked demonstrations were approved with less rigid requirements.
A particularly obvious example was provided by the city of Ulm in early 2022, which banned all demonstrations against the Corona measures on the pretext of epidemic policy. To also prevent unannounced Corona “walks,” the city mandated FFP2 masks throughout the city center on Monday evenings and Friday evenings, the favorite times of the “walkers”.
The harassing obligation to wear a particularly tight FFP2 mask outdoors or in the car during certain hours was unabashedly justified by the fact that many critics of the Corona measures, with their often strong unwillingness to wear masks, would not put them on and would thus be easily recognizable to the police as “troublemakers.”
In order to lend emphasis to the requirement, the general order to enforce this mask requirement explicitly threatened the use of physical coercion, including the use of weapons by the police.
After I reported (in German), there was initially an embarrassing joint clarification by the city and the police headquarters (in German)that they would not shoot anybody just for not wearing a mask. A few days later, the city announced that the threat of violence would be deleted from the general decree. The mask requirement on “walk”-days remained in place.
The Canadian example and the way how Corona rules were used in Ulm and throughout Germany to stop protests, leads me to conclude that, under the pretext of fighting a pandemic, governments can easily make a frightened majority of the population accept the abuse of health-policy-oriented surveillance and control possibilities to stifle public dissent.
The EU’s planned extension of the use of digital health passes (despite more than 38.000 vastly predominantly negative comments by citizens) and the global harmonization of these, for which the WHO has commissioned T-Systems (report in German), are thus to be regarded as measures with an extremely high potential for abuse. As the current example from China frighteningly shows, they allow very far-reaching and targeted control of crowds and of the actions of individual citizens.