Innovation and technology in the Chinese response to Covid

(To Antonio Vecchio)

The health emergency of Covid 19 represented a watershed, between the confused and improvised management that more or less all Western governments have provided and the orderly and punctual one of Eastern countries.

China has amazed at the speed with which it has implemented all the measures to stem the epidemic. To facilitate it, the decision-making centralization of its apparatus played a decisive role, but also contributed to a surprising efficiency of the armed forces, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), present in Wuhan since the early stages of the emergency, with medical personnel , vehicles and equipment.

International televisions have repeatedly broadcast images of field hospitals capable of hosting thousands of beds, built with impressive speed by the Beijing military, and of the thousands of men and women in white coats, neatly at work in wards of ultramodern intensive care.

However, not much has been written about the technological level of the large device set up by the Chinese authorities to deal with the emergency, perfectly in line with the idea of ​​the future which, at least since 2012, the year of the election of Xi Jinping a party general secretary, inspires the internal political action of the Dragon.

The images arrived in the West have actually revealed little of the surveillance systems used for the emergency, the technological avant-garde of the new Chinese conception of public order..

To the most attentive eyes, however, the thousands of cameras1 infrared, equipped with artificial intelligence (AI), scattered everywhere on the streets and public places of the capital Wuhan2 and Hubei province3, to monitor the body temperature of passers-by, identify people who were not wearing masks correctly or those who violated the quarantine provisions.

The video surveillance systems sent, every 6 seconds, a warning and a monitoring video to a community worker, in order to report possible infringements.

Another novelty was the massive use of drones, used for transport in the health sector, disinfection and temperature screening, used continuously to monitor citizens and transmit sound alerts to those who violated the rules of confinement.

Unmanned flying machines flanked thousands of rwork of various types, used in the most diverse fields: from the delivery of medical equipment to that of food, to make throat swabs or carry out disinfections. In some cases, they have even been used to call citizens' homes directly, and provide them with useful information on what to do.

Measures like these would be unimaginable in the West, but not in a nation like China, which for some time has equipped itself with a system, called "social credits" (v.articolo), on the basis of which the behavior of each individual citizen or company is "weighed", and continuously examined, in order to verify its consistency with current regulations and the possible "ownership" to receive public services such as : facilitated access to hospitals, the provision of a loan, or even just the purchase of a plane ticket.

With these premises, Beijing had free rein to adapt such a surveillance system to the pandemic emergency, not only by punishing those who violated the behavioral rules imposed by the authorities, but also by offering incentives to companies that implemented all the health requirements of the case.

The technological progress of the Asian giant and the control it implements over public and private companies have allowed synergies in other sectors as well.

The telephone companies, for example, ensured the continuous tracking of phone calls, not only for the needs of the central government, but also to communicate the places and cells, and therefore the people, with whom the users had been in contact in the fifteen previous days.

The fact that, from the earliest stages of the emergency, for any purchase, from medicines to tickets for public transport, it was mandatory to provide personal details, has allowed for extensive individual tracking, which has made it possible to trace the network of contacts of each citizen.

A mass of information in a continuous stream, powered by mobile phones, smartphones, palmtops, computers, in a country with over a billion citizens always connected, has made it possible to create an "epidemic map" capable of providing information on the areas affected by the infection of the coronavirus.

The Chinese have even resorted to blockchain, to maintain the immutability of data in the platforms built to deal with the epidemic, but also to manage supplies, quality controls and monitoring of logistics processes.

Yes, from the early stages of the epidemic, for example, a program with a tracking function based on a QR code, assigned users a color (green, yellow and red) which corresponded to the possibility or not to access public spaces or the obligation quarantine.

The binomial surveillance technology - democratic centralism, ultimately, it was the most important address with which Beijing reacted to the Covid 19 emergency, as well as representing one of the most important aspects of the new Chinese policy, which dedicated its latest five-year plan precisely to technological progress, with the goal to become a global leader in artificial intelligence.

In fact, Beijing has shown more, and before many others, the will to ride the digital revolution underway, immediately placing itself in the leading group of nations that are developing and implementing it.


Photo: Bloomberg / web / xinhua