A masked man in a suit stands in front of a line of people waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Efficiency over privacy: How trust in the Chinese government helped contain the pandemic

Author Yashu Zhang describes the efficiency of China's vaccination rollout and why there's so much trust in authorities in the fight against the coronavirus.

The World

In China, we are led by loudspeakers. 

For over a year now, we have heard the loudspeaker tell us to wear a mask in the metro station. It also tells us to watch our steps and not to look at our phones. The loudspeaker repeats, the crowd marches. It couldn’t be more normal. 

It was a similar experience at the vaccination center. From the entrance, the loudspeaker told us where to go for our first or second shot. Soon after, we came to the next loudspeaker, which tried to help us separate into two groups — those above and below the age of 60. Among the monotonous sounds, we moved forward in the queue. 

Related: Daily life in China with the coronavirus

When it was my turn, a staff member directed me to a nurse who handed me a form and said, “Sign it.” I signed it, confirming that I met the requirements for getting the vaccine jab. Then I was directed to another nurse, who sat me down and pointed to a set of instructions on the wall. She told me I was getting the vaccine produced by a Beijing company. Then she gave me the injection, which ended before I even felt a thing. With more loudspeakers directing the way, I came to the observation area, where hundreds of people sat and waited for their time to leave. Everyone in this time slot got shots in less than 15 minutes. 

Efficiency — that’s what the government is after. Loudspeakers guarantee that instructions are communicated as efficiently as possible. Whether it’s about standing in the right place or not looking at our phones, Chinese people are used to it. 

We are used to living at the boundary between public and private spheres.

Related: North Korea to reopen its borders for the coronavirus vaccine 

That's how the government has managed to control the pandemic. Since the beginning of 2020, we have been identified by our health codes — a QR code on our phones that auto-updates every day according to where we have been, who we have been with and our health status. The spread of smartphones has greatly facilitated the government’s ability to track our footprints. More recently, facial recognition has made it even easier. Our faces are connected to our identification cards and our Alipay accounts — our bodies become part of the tracking system. 

While I worry about my increasing loss of privacy, I am also amazed by how efficient these new systems have made everyday life. And little needs to be said about how proud Chinese people are of the government’s ability to quickly contain the pandemic. 

Living in Shanghai, I hadn’t felt any real threat from the pandemic for months until January this year, when they found three new local cases in the city. The government immediately tracked down the sources of the outbreak and identified the people they had been in touch with. 

Shanghai’s infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong said that tracking down the cases was like trying to trap rats in a porcelain shop, so the goal was not just to find the rats, but also not to break everything. That was exactly what the Shanghai government did — they responded actively without alarming the whole city, only testing specific groups and locking down a few neighborhoods. 

The outbreak was brought under control after about a week, and only 16 cases were confirmed in the end, as far as we know.

Early last year, the Wuhan police’s punishment of the coronavirus whistleblowers made people challenge the authority, but the skepticism was quickly overturned as China gained control over the pandemic. The contrast between our lives here and lives abroad has become one of the most popular topics at the dinner table. Obviously, nothing wins people’s hearts more than restoring a safe environment for them to live in when the rest of the world is struggling. 

When it comes to the vaccine, however, not everybody is so excited. A friend in Wuhan just told me that before the vaccine came out, people were looking forward to it, but now that it has, people prefer to wait, because no one wants to be the lab rats. 

Related: Wary of coronavirus vaccines, some Chinese citizens are ‘opting out’ 

My relatives in Hunan province have similar attitudes. My cousin was recently notified to get his first shot. “When will you go?” I asked. “Maybe when they call me again,” he said, very reluctantly.

Because there are no cases where they live, they see the vaccination more as fulfilling a requirement from the government than doing something that protects themselves. And in China, we have a saying: "Any medicine is 30% poison."

But when the government gives a recommendation, most people listen. My mother is one of the believers that medicines are 30% poison, but she recently got her first shot. She had heard in the news that the border would reopen after 70% of the population got vaccinated. She wanted me to be able to see my husband again, whom I haven’t seen for almost a year because of the pandemic. Moreover, she said, “If the government lets us use it, it must be OK, right?” 

Lately, the government has sped up the vaccination process by assigning quotas to local authorities. As a result, residential committees are actively encouraging people to get vaccinated, even by rewarding them with small gifts; state-owned companies organize group vaccination sessions that allow employees to get the jab during work hours.

Medical specialists, such as Zhang Wenhong, and the acclaimed pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, are also advocating the vaccine. The pandemic has turned them into authority figures in science, who represent both the experts in controlling the virus and the voice of the government. They tell us what to do and what not to do — and people tend to trust them. 

Where does this trust come from? As a kid, I didn’t necessarily trust what the teachers said was true, but it couldn’t be too far from the truth, because they were teachers. As kids, we trooped into the schoolyard every morning to do our group exercises, listening to the repetitive orders coming from the loudspeaker. Still trying to wipe the sleep from our eyes and having another stressful school day coming ahead, we didn’t always find it pleasant. But that was part of school, and we had to be there and listen, because we were students. 

Many ideologies were instilled in us when we were still trying to learn our math, but there’s something that goes back even further. Some may say that the trust in authority has taken root in us for a long time, since Confucius established the hierarchy between parents and children, teachers and students, and rulers and subjects. “In the same way, we looked up to our emperors,” my Wuhan friend said. 

Some others think we trust this authority because we do not have an alternative. We, after all, are people scared of death. Compared to losing our lives to a disease, we would much rather lose our privacy to the government that’s trying to protect us against it. 

Related: One year after lockdown, Wuhan volunteers say the pandemic transformed their lives

Though, we find it troublesome to have to show our health code every time we enter a public space, we still do it. Not a great fan of the vaccine, we get it, when asked, knowing that the officially approved product can’t be too bad. 

Indeed, the pandemic has heightened the degree to which we are being watched, but most people think this is done for the common good. We are sacrificing a bit of our individual freedom, but this is how we get things done, and done for the better. 

As far as the pandemic is concerned, I don’t think this is wrong.

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