China Coins Tech Term in Escalating Its Digital Surveillance of COVID-19 Close Contacts

By Frank Yue
Frank Yue
Frank Yue
Frank Yue is a Canada-based journalist for The Epoch Times who covers China-related news. He also holds an M.A. in English language and literature from Tianjin Foreign Studies University, China.
November 9, 2021 Updated: November 14, 2021

Chinese authorities are using a new term for their combined approach of restricting citizens’ movement through tech surveillance and pandemic lockdowns. Analysts have expressed concern over the new tactics, which single out individuals for being a “companion in space and time” with a COVID-19 patient.

The Public Security Bureau of Chengdu City in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province issued a notice that, as of Nov. 4, they have identified 82,000 residents as exposed to the risk of being a close contact to a person infected by COVID-19, reported state media outlets.

By official definition, a “companion in space and time” is a cellphone owner whose number was found to have stayed for more than ten minutes within the same area as a confirmed COVID-19 case. Cellphones within a half-mile grid are considered to have been in the same area. The size of the grid is approximately equivalent to 90 football fields by international standards.

Persons designated as companions will receive messages from local police. Their state-mandated cellphone health tracking app will also automatically change to a code yellow, requiring the owner of the smart phone to avoid leaving home.

These individuals must report to their local community center and return two nuclear acid tests within 24 hours at some point in the first three days of notification. If both results are negative, they still have to self-isolate for 14-days after which, they may make a request to the authorities to restore their health code to green.

The new move comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has seen a wave of domestic outbreaks since mid-October amid its “zero-COVID” policy.

China affairs commentator Wang Jian called the move a sign of digital authoritarianism on his YouTube channel on Nov. 4.

“[China’s] health code [system] itself represents severe restrictions on personal freedoms,” he argued. “The idea of “companion in space and time” marks a formidable level that the CCP’s control over personal freedom has reached.”

In his opinion, Beijing has turned individuals’ cellphones into manipulation devices, while the number of affected people will keep growing due to population movement.

Wang suggested avoiding use of cellphones, keeping them on flight mode, or simply turning them off.

Another China expert, Tang Jingyuan, says that the CCP’s use of big data surveillance has swollen exponentially. According to him, this is the first time that mainland China has conducted, in such an invasive way, tracking of CCP virus cases on a mass scale.

Although citizens may deem the move as temporary, the harsh mode of management could stay around even if China’s pandemic ends, Tang warned.

Frank Yue
Frank Yue is a Canada-based journalist for The Epoch Times who covers China-related news. He also holds an M.A. in English language and literature from Tianjin Foreign Studies University, China.