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World

China Declares 'People's War' On COVID-19 — Including Reporting Family And Friends

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In China today, a huge jump in cases of a new illness due to a new method of counting. China revised the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to include some 15,000 people who had not tested positive for coronavirus but had been diagnosed by doctors.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Authorities are also increasingly resorting to high-tech surveillance measures to track people's movement, and China's leader, Xi Jinping, has declared a grassroots people's war against the virus. Well, with us to take stock of all of these developments is NPR's Emily Feng. She's in Shanghai today. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm fascinated by these surveillance measures that China is using. How - what are some of the ways that they are trying to track people's movements and try to contain the outbreak?

FENG: Any of the ways they have on hand. They're doing everything from tracking license plate numbers across provinces to searching train manifests and airplane manifests for people who are passing through the epicenter of the virus. As you mentioned, today, I'm in Shanghai, and I've had to fill out this app with my personal details and my travel history for the last two weeks just to leave the train station and the airport. Mostly, though, these surveillance methods you've mentioned are really low tech. It's local officials who now guard every village and apartment entrance, including mine, asking people where they're coming from, taking their body temperature.

China's vice premier Sun Chunlan just visited Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak. She described this approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUN CHUNLAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She's saying, "Hubei and Wuhan must not delay in taking decisive measures to identify all suspected and confirmed cases without compromise and ensure all those who must be rounded up are rounded up" - pretty striking language.

KELLY: Yeah.

FENG: She's basically encouraging there for people to report anyone around them for mass quarantine. That's unsavory behavior, and so officials in many places are offering bounties to do so. The most lucrative one I found is in a city not far from Beijing. They're giving up to $300 to report anyone who's traveled from Wuhan to that city. Another neighborhood that I visited about two weeks ago says they'll give about $80 to anyone who reports someone with a fever.

KELLY: Wow. So how does this tie in with the other thing I mentioned, which is Xi Jinping calling efforts to contain the virus a people's war?

FENG: That's a phrase that's actually used quite often. It comes from Chairman Mao Zedong. It was actually used first as a euphemism for guerrilla warfare. Jude Blanchette studies language like this. He's the Freeman Chair of China studies at the Washington think tank CSIS. And he says over the decades, this kind of language has become central to the Chinese Communist Party. It's a way to mobilize grassroots efforts to tackle big problems.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: Since Xi Jinping sort of kicked the system into gear, it has swung wildly into this overreaction, hypermobilization of every element of the system, existing within a political bureaucratic system that is prone to opacity, to shifting responsibility, prone to stifling independent and dissenting voices.

FENG: So first, you saw this initial delay in officials responding to the virus; now you see Xi Jinping calling on every person in Chinese civilization to take responsibility and keep watch over one another.

KELLY: Keep watch, but also, as you as you mentioned, snitch on each other. This is neighbors being encouraged to tell on neighbors, even family members being urged to snitch on family members. Is it successful? Is there any way of measuring whether this works?

FENG: There's no public statistics on how many cases have been reported, but certainly, the idea of forcing people into these mass quarantine centers without accurate screening measures is not a good idea, according to epidemiologists, because you're mixing healthy people with potentially unhealthy infected people, and that leads to further infections.

We've also seen massive discrimination against people with ID papers from the epicenter of the outbreak, even if they haven't been there in the last two months. And today, of course, we've seen this massive jump in numbers, despite all these efforts, simply because officials are now trying to recategorize how they measure the outbreak.

KELLY: NPR's Emily Feng reporting today from Shanghai. Thank you, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Mary Louise Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.