Chinese Show Security Health Status on Smarphone App in Beijing, China
Kurzanalyse
7 Minuten Lesedauer

Covid-19 contact tracing apps: why they are so popular in China

1. Concerns about privacy violations matter

In contrast to the popularly held belief that Chinese citizens do not care about data privacy, the findings show that these concerns play an important role for citizens from all three countries. Interestingly, Chinese respondents expressed distrust towards technology companies in terms of privacy protection but seem to be more accepting of government uses of digital technologies such as Covid-19 apps, whereas in Germany and the United States the opposite appears to be the case. Partly, this could be due to ignorance of the risks associated with digital technologies, as state-led media in China offer only limited discussion of the multiple purposes for which personal data is used, including surveillance.

Compared to Germans and US citizens, Chinese cititzens are also to some extent more used to the fact that personal data is systematically collected in personalized files, a system known as “dang’an”(档案). Another possible explanation is that refusal to use technologies that are officially endorsed by the government can be difficult in China’s authoritarian context. Even though companies were responsible for the deployment of CTAs in all three countries, respondents seem to associate these apps mainly with the government which has commissioned and recommended them or made them obligatory.

2. Acceptance depends on who is identified to be capable in managing the pandemic

When asked who is most capable in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, the most common choices of respondents from all three countries were the central government, with 44 percent, and individuals, with 38 percent of the total surveyed. While in China the importance of the central government was emphasized over the individual, respondents from the United States believed the individual to play the key role in fighting the pandemic. The acceptance of CTAs is particular low among respondents from the United States and Germany who believe individuals, rather than governments or international organizations, have the highest competence to handle the crisis.

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3. People only use CTAs if they are convinced they work

People’s assessment of the effectiveness of CTAs matters in all three countries. If people believe CTAs improve health information access, or result in fewer infections, they tend to be more likely to accept them. Perceived CTA effectiveness is higher in China than in Germany and the United States. This is likely because, first of all adoption rates in the former are much higher thereby increasing CTA effectiveness. Second, the health code app has allowed people to access public spaces in China, while in Germany and the United States CTAs are merely used for information sharing. Chinese citizens might therefore link use of the health code app to hope that their daily life can start to look normal again – with the exception of local outbreaks.

4. Trust in government is important

Acceptance of CTAs in China, Germany and the United States is highly affected by citizens’ trust in the state. The more respondents trust the state, the more likely they are to adopt the apps. Trust is particularly high in China, where 78 percent of respondents say that they trust their country’s government institutions “a lot”. This far exceeds numbers for Germany and the United States, which reach 20 percent and eight percent, respectively. However, as research on self-censorship among Chinese survey respondents has shown, these high numbers in the Chinese case must be to some extent discounted.

5. Conspiracy belief hinders CTA acceptance

21 percent of the US respondents and 13 percent of German respondents believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a conspiracy. This stands in contrast to a mere three percent in China. The survey analysis shows that in all three countries those who share a conspiracy belief are less likely to accept CTAs. This effect is particularly high in the case of the United States, where conspiracy theories like QAnon originated.

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6. People who are technology adept are highly in favor

Around 900 respondents in China, 770 in the United States, and 600 in Germany report some experience with similar apps. Respondents who are technology adept have a higher acceptance of CTAs, suggesting that familiarity with healthcare apps positively helps with CTA adoption in the three countries.

CTAs have been quickly adopted globally, but debate about the apps’ effectiveness and desirability is ongoing. This study shows that, especially in the United States and Germany, convincing citizens to adopt CTAs continues to be important if this technology is to contain the pandemic.


About the authors:

Genia Kostka is Professor of Chinese Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on China’s digital transformation, environmental politics and political economy.

Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla is Assistant Professor for State and Society of Modern China at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests are China’s social and economic development, water and resource governance, renewable energies, development-induced displacement, and central-local relations with a focus on China.

This short analysis is based on the findings from the study 'In Times of Crisis: Public Perceptions Towards Covid-19 Contact Tracing Apps in China, Germany and the US'. For a full summary of the study, please go to SSRN.