COVID-19 & China’s Mass Surveillance System by New York University

The project was done and published during my master program study at NYU Journalism Institute. In that semester, right after COVID first broke out in NYC, our cohort decided to create a web publication that focuses on how the world is tackling COVID. As a Chinese international student, I felt my obligation in providing my Chinese angle to the whole picture.

In spring 2020, China created a massive surveillance system utilizing QR health codes to track and monitor how citizens travel and commute inside the country. On one hand, people took it as an innovative way to build the national system. On the other hand, there were criticisms about privacy violations. Thus, out of the curiosity, I investigated how China implemented one of the most extensive technological contract tracing systems in the world.

During the process, I first examined web search data, from the biggest Chinese search engine “Baidu”, about the health code apps. Based on the search data, I filtered out several cities which have more citizens searching for the keyword “QR Health Code”. Later, I dived into Chinese Twitter “Weibo” looking for my sources from these cities.

The app was updating rapidly. To present its key iterations in chronology, and to showcase its popularity geographically, I leveraged scrollytelling to combine the information. When you read the story, you can scroll through users’ experiences in chronological order and pinpoint those experiences on an interactive Chinese map at the same time.

There were two major obstacles in producing this story. The first one is to find the “largest search amount”. To tackle this, in the final web product, you can see two metrics I used: one is the absolute value of the searching amount, and the other is the per capita search. Another obstacle is combining geographic and chronological information on a single web page. After multiple drafts and prototypes, I finally came across the

In this project, I started with the story, instead of “tools”. I chose the best tools to accomplish my goal of combining geography and chronology information. The whole web app is built by React.js. The dots on the map were rendered by Mapbox. To help the reader better understand the navigation, I used illustrator to create legends.