How the ABC misleads Australians

The ABC recently produced an article which is so full of bias it was hard to know where to start. I decided to deconstruct it piece by piece. The ABC written words are bold, my own comments are in light italics.

The way the article is written seems to pursue one goal, that of presenting China in a bad light. And, although the article was written by a journalist with a Chinese name, it’s not known what experience Ms Zhao has of the Mainland, her Alma Mater is HK Baptist University but I make no assumptions about where her allegiance lies as regards China and the One China policy, many of my own former students from Zhongshan on the mainland went to HKBU.

The headline is as follows:

China’s planned national digital health code system raises concerns[JG1] over state surveillance

[JG1]Note the concerns are not raised in China but by “experts” in Australia

By Iris Zhao

China’s COVID-19 health code system has been a core element of Beijing’s pandemic strategy. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)

Beijing’s plans to develop an integrated online health platform featuring the digital health records of every resident has sparked concerns about intensified state surveillance[JG1] .

China’s National Health Commission announced last week that each resident would be given a “fully functional digital health code”.

It’s part of a five-year National Health Informatisation Plan to “digitise national health information” by 2025.

[JG1]It’s hard to imagine how much more surveilled people in China could be with ID numbers linked to facial recognition and surveillance systems everywhere. Driving licences and mobile phones are already linked to IDs as are all health and education records already. This is part of China’s culture and people in China have no objections to it, they say, when asked, it makes them feel safer. ABC reports this, without asking any Chinese person for an opinion as something sinister, it’s not.

The announcement triggered a surge of interest on[JG1] Chinese social media with a related hashtag about living with digital health codes post-COVID quickly receiving more than 38 million views on China’s version of Twitter, Weibo.

COVID-19 health codes have been a core element of China’s hardline health strategy during the pandemic.

For the past two years, a green health code has been required for entry to almost every public place in urban China — from supermarkets to restaurants, public transport and even parks — and also for travel between localities.

[JG1]Note the use of the wording here. If people were angry about it, ABC would definitely have said so. People obviously didn’t respond angrily. Despite some recent reports of “mass protests” they are not mass and they are not angry about this aspect of their lives.

However, there have been instances where the system appears to have been [JG1] abused to limit people’s movement for non-health-related reasons.

[JG1]They can’t say it is, only that it appears to have been. I can confirm for the ABC, since they clearly don’t wish to bother their readers with facts, this has actually been proven to have happened in Henan. However, there’s a lot more to that story, as you shall see in a short while if you continue reading

And experts worry that Beijing will [JG1] use an expanded health code system to even more closely surveil and control the populace.

[JG1]Experts can’t say they will, only that they worry they might. not that it has occured or they have any evidence that it will — let’s see if we can find out who the experts are — shall we?

How does China’s COVID-19 health code system work?

The COVID-19 health code system uses apps such as WeChat and Alipay to display a user’s status.(ABC News: Bang Xiao)

The COVID-19 health codes work through mobile phone apps such as WeChat or Alipay, which are ubiquitous in China[JG1] .

The apps track people’s movements as users check in at locations and update users’ status if they have visited a COVID “hotspot” or tested positive to coronavirus.

The app then displays their status as either green, yellow or red.

[JG1]If they are ubiquitous, surely the upcoming comment about many people not having access to the internet or mobile phone technology is questionable?

A red code means the person needs to be quarantined in a medical facility, while a yellow code indicates they should quarantine at home[JG1] .

It’s not a centralised national system but instead managed on a provincial level, with some variation between areas.

In megacities like Beijing, for example, a user’s health code will turn grey if they fail to get tested when required, leaving them barred from entering most public places.

Often travellers will have to use several health codes issued by different local governments during their journeys.

[JG1]The word quarantine is used when it should be isolation. I’ve personally been yellow twice now and each time was allowed to leave home to go shopping and to get tested, this is not the same as quarantine at all and is misinformation.

‘It’s all automated and real time’

Residents are required to check in almost everywhere they go in China. (Reuters: Tingshu Wang)

In[JG1] Australia, the federal and state governments developed their own COVID tracking and check-in apps.

[JG1]Wait a moment: Isn’t this exactly what the article is saying China has already done? The very next paragraph states that different provinces(states) have different applications but the Central (Federal) government developed through existing Apps

Seems a tad hypocritical and superfluous, added padding to make China look worse than Australia perhaps?

Meanwhile, Beijing turned to big tech companies Tencent and Alibaba to build the health code system into their apps WeChat and Alipay, which were already used for everything from chatting to paying bills.

Wilfred Wang,[JG1] a media and communication lecturer at the University of Melbourne, has been watching China’s implementation of the health code system closely.

[JG1] Finally, we have our first expert and, although he has a Chinese sounding name, he’s a lecturer at the University in Melbourne, so he doesn’t live in in China but is commenting on their behalf. His Bio is nice, he’s a graduate of a Queensland University and seems well-qualified in his field.

Dr Wang said that even if people skipped scanning a code or two, their locations were still tracked.

“When you use the embedded programs on WeChat or Alipay, you are actually linking the health code to your social media accounts,” Dr Wang said.

“Many people might have [JG1] witnessed their health code turn yellow or red all of a sudden, even though they didn’t declare they’ve been to any hotspots.

“It’s all automated and real time.”

[JG1]Again they can’t say they have, only that they might have. Pure speculation and not for the first time either. And, even if they are, it’s an acceptable part of living in China, as mentioned later, Chinese people accept it and are ok with it.

What do we know about the expanded system?

COVID curbs fuels protests in Guangzhou

Crowds of people in the city of Guangzhou crash through COVID barriers and march down streets in chaotic scenes in a show of public resentment over coronavirus curbs,[JG1].

[JG1] For no apparent reason, the ABC have decided to place a photograph and a link to an article about protests in China. Seems like they would like their readers to form certain opinions.

While details about Beijing’s plans are limited, according to the announcement: “Each resident will have a dynamically managed digital health record and a full-featured electronic health code.” [JG1]

[JG1] here the ABC inform their readers that they haven’t found out much about the system at all because the admit the details are limited.

A source[JG1] “close to the NHC” told Chinese news website Caixin the new electronic health code would be different to the digital QR [JG2] codes that track people’s COVID test records and movements.

[JG1]Another of ABC’s unnamed sources, this one inside China! I think we might be getting some balance here and some real information. This is good, well done ABC…

[JG2]Wait a moment, the source is telling them that it will be different — so it isn’t a QR tracking code at all, it’s a consolidation of the health records. That’s not what the article is about. Oh dear, not so well done ABC

[These two] are not the same thing[JG1] ,” they said.

[JG1]Whoops, ABC, I thought you were doing well but your source inside China has just clarified that your article doesn’t have a story — they are not the same thing. This system isn’t related to the QR codes for tracking, it’s related to hospital and health records. There may be a different story but it’s really not aligned with the article being written. It seems the source and the reporter are discussing two different systems

According to Caixin, the new health codes would be created based on residents’ identification numbers.

Peking University health expert Li Ling told Chinese state media The Paper the digital health code was intended to improve medical services and people’s lives.[JG1]

“This is a very meaningful thing, to open and merge medical databases, and achieve interconnection and sharing of 1.4 billion people’s health information,” he said.

[JG1]I’m guessing the reporter, or the editor placed these 50 or so words here for balance but seems to be confusing because here’s another source, this one is named and is also in China but states quite clearly that this has been launched to improve peolpe’s lives and is a merger of medical databases not a Covid Tracking App

However, Deakin University media researcher Yang Fan said that despite claims of good intentions, the plan would not make accessing proper health care easier for the elderly or people lacking digital literacy[JG1] .

[JG1]Here we have another “expert” another Chinese name but once again another one located in Australia. So far, both Australian “experts” are against the issue and the only Chinese resident involved stated it’s a positive thing but ABC have made a mistake and it’s not the same project.

Contrary to this Australian based expert’s opinion, it’s a fact that elderly people, as with the current covid testing where they don’t use a smart phone, receive manual information. Nothing will change for elderly people and China will be thinking long term — right now, no one in China under 70 years of age is digitally illiterate, they all have smartphones as well as most over 70 years of age too. This is not the same as Australia and assumes Australia’s lack of advancement is the same in China. Even rural China this hardly applies and the total number would be less than 0.5% of the population. However, here’s a SCMP article which explains how elderly are not disadvantaged by not using modern technology:

Will China still use big data to track its citizens?

China has used big data to trace and control the outbreak of COVID-19. Evidence suggests [JG1]it will use those new capabilities to monitor citizens well into the future.

[JG1]Whatever the evidence suggests, this is clearly an opinion taken from an interpretation of what someone thinks it is, not what it actually is. If the evidence suggest it will do something there is no way of knowing that is what is going to happen, only what the ABC and perhaps its “experts” think will happen

Dr Yang said the COVID-19 health code was originally intended just to monitor users’ health status to identify whether they were eligible to work.

But the announcement suggested that [JG1] more sensitive health-related data would be collected and managed by the centralised system in the name of improving efficiency, she said.

[JG1]What Dr Yang stated here is correct, the health code was originally intended to moniter users health status: there is no reason to use the past tense in this statement because that’s exactly what it still does. Nothing more.

The next line makes it looks like it’s Dr Yang’s interpretation of what the announcement means but the interpretation hasn’t been attributed to him, perhaps it’s not his and belongs to the reporter or the editor — there is no way of knowing which. And, in any event, this is an assumtion and not a fact.

Dr Wang said data collected recently from rural Hunan province showed that many people were not actively using the COVID health codes, because either they [JG1] didn’t have mobile phones or access to the internet.

“The usage rate in some areas is extremely low,” he said.

He said Beijing might want [JG2] to use the expanded health code system to put those people under surveillance too.

[JG1]This is not true. Everyone in China has access to internet now. Data released only this week indicates there ar almost 10 million mobile phone stations and almost 1.5 million 5G stations in China. I’ve personally travelled through rural Hunan several times stopping in many small villages. I know for a fact this is not true, almost everyone has a smartphone.

It may be true that QR Health code usage is low but why do farmers in rural Hunan need to scan their codes if they seldom leave their farm or village. In the last 6 months, I’ve been on farms and in remote villages near Changde, Zhuzhou(Liling), Xiangtan and throughout Xiangxi County, all in Hunan. I have never once not been able to use my smartphone in rural China and at the same time, I was very rarely asked to scan a QR code for health check, it’s not widely used in the regions because there are few visitor but, when I went back to the towns, I was requested to scan at my hotels and elsewhere.

[JG2]It’s true Beijing might, but it’s equally true that they might not

Potential [JG1] for abuse

[JG1]Sure it has the potential but that’s not the reality — the writer of the article has the potential to be a mass murderer but that doesn’t mean that she is, and nor would I accuse her of such with only assumptions and hearsay to go on.

Earlier this year, a number of angry bank depositors found their COVID-19 status turned red when [JG1] they were on their way to protest.(AP)

In June, customers of a rural bank in China’s Henan province found their COVID-19 QR code unexpectedly turned red as they were on their way to the bank’s headquarters to petition and demand their accounts be unfrozen.

[JG1]Indeed, this caption on this photograph and this part of the article is true.

However, in the interest of balance, the ABC could have mentioned, since it’s common knowledge and a reporter with anything more than a passing interest in China, ought to be aware, that the officials who did this, as officials anywhere in the world who abuse their government’s privacy laws should be, have been punished, here’s a link to prove my point and disprove ABCs:

Ausma Bernot, a PhD candidate at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University, said the health code system was “an excellent means of keeping tabs on the population”.

“There is a definite possibility [JG1] that the health code might be integrated into broader structures of governance,” she said.

[JG1]Ah, we have another “expert” but this one isn’t even a Chinese name and is also in Australia: Furthermore the statement turns oxymoronic with the use of two words that should never be used together in English: How is it possible to have a definite possibility?

It’s either definitely happening, or it’s possible it will happen, it can’t be both but the word definite makes readers believe it’s true.

It would be hard to believe an ABC editor doesn’t know this so I’ll make an assumption and point out that the editor wanted the reader to see the word “definite” and not focus on the word “possibility”. In other words, I think the editor or the writer is attempting to misinform the viewer with bias here.

However, Ms Bernot pointed out that people were outraged in early 2020 when a local government in China’s Hangzhou city told its residents they were planning to make a version of the health code permanent.

Ms Bernot said the system had made the state’s data harvesting and analysis more obvious than ever and pushback from the populace could stop the health code system from going beyond its original purpose.

The problem, she said, was that when a system of surveillance [JG1] was well established, it was easy for the party-state to covertly extend the uses of that system.

[JG1]THere are two points to unfold here:

One is that the system referred to was the use of a health code tracker which was usggested in one local region they may continue with its use after the pandemic. People, quite rightly pushed back and the idea was scrapped. In other words, the entire premise of this article has just been destroyed — if the government wants to continue with a health tracking code after the pandemic ends, people will resist and it will almost certainly be successful. However, if the government wants to consolidate all the health information in one App so no one needs to worry about seeing a doctor who doesn’t have access to their health history, most people would accept this.

The second is that this assumption that its easy to extend the system beyond its boundaries, is based on an assumption that the State can’t be trusted. Australians will believe this is bad without knowing that Chinese people are much more likely to trust their government than Australians do. The state already monitors almost every aspect of a Chinese person’s life and the people are not uncomfortable with that. Had the reporter asked the ABC staff in China to discuss this with any individual in any marketplace in China, they would have established, as I have done, that Chinese have no such fear of government overreach, they actually trust the government.

Finally, the expert, whose knowldge and experience may, or may not involve Chinese culture, psychology or criminal behaviour has an opinion based, it appears on her interpretation of what China’s government might do.

I have no question about the experts qualifications in criminology, but does this expert have knowledge of Chinese criminal behaviour and, if so, why would the ABC neglect to mention that when introducing her?

China’s National Health Commission has been contacted [JG1] for comment.

[JG1]Without any supporting information, it’s hard to know how, who and what kind of approach was made. Was the approach made 3 minutes before publication, was it made in Chinese and have the department been given a real opportunity to respond? I suspect not but that’s only my opinion.

I guess I’m entitled to an opinion or two when reviewing an article so full of them!

This brings us to the end of the article and the end of my analysis. I will leave the critical reader to make their own decisions on whether the ABC was fair, impartial and showed no bias here.



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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences