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A security guard monitors the entrance to a residential compound in Beijing, on Feb. 6, 2020.GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities across China have created snitch lines and promised cash rewards for information on visitors from virus-stricken locations – going so far as to solicit tips on people playing mahjong in defiance of bans on gatherings – as the country’s efforts to constrain an epidemic veer into harsher territory.

The widening use of coercive measures, some broadcast by volunteers in red armbands, are part of President Xi Jinping’s call for an all-out effort to combat the deadly Wuhan virus. But it also resembles government mobilization campaigns that marked some of the ugliest moments under Communist Party rule.

“The government has adopted a mass-movement style tactic to deal with the epidemic,” said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University scholar who is an expert in Chinese social movements. He pointed to historical precedents under chairman Mao Zedong, including the Cultural Revolution and the struggle against the Three Evils and the Five Evils.

“Encouraging the public to report on each other to achieve the goals of central government rule is nothing new, and this time it’s the same,” Prof. Wu said. ”This is something the Communist Party is good at when it comes to social control – it’s like creating class enemies of all people in China.”

Fear created by the spread of the virus, which has now killed 564 in China and infected another 28,112, has already stoked broad public suspicion of people from Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus, and from cities in the provinces of Zhejiang and Anhui, where large numbers of cases have emerged.

Authorities across China have made battling the virus their top priority.

“We have taken the most comprehensive and rigorous prevention and control measures against the novel coronavirus, many of which have far exceeded what the World Health Organization and international health organizations required,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday. She added that “sacrificing one’s family for all and putting the country before oneself has always been a spiritual hallmark of the Chinese nation, ingrained in our genes.”

The use of rewards for tips, however, has provided official endorsement for suspicions that have turned neighbours against neighbours.

In the southeastern city of Fuzhou, local authorities have offered almost $60 for information about people who have left their homes to buy necessities more than once every 48 hours or who have not reported contact with people from Hubei or Wenzhou, a virus-stricken city in Zhejiang.

In the eastern city of Tai’an, authorities offered a $190 reward for reporting people engaged in “illegal and criminal activities related to the epidemic.” It’s an effort to “fully mobilize social forces and establish a tight line of defence for joint prevention, joint control and mass prevention,” authorities said in a statement reported by state media. They even outlined rules for splitting the reward if multiple reports were made.

In the nearby city of Jinan, one neighbourhood offered 20 masks to anyone who reported an unregistered person from Hubei. “The primary intent is to cut off the flow of infection sources from Hubei,” said a woman who answered a phone at the tip line and confirmed the existence of the reward.

The northeastern city of Changhun, in Jilin province, offered $380 for tips on people who have violated home quarantine measures or concealed symptoms from authorities.

In Wenzhou’s Pingyang county, meanwhile, authorities offered $180 for reports on “sporadic gathering activities,” including playing cards or mahjong. Many Chinese cities have banned such gatherings and even meals between friends. “The hidden dangers of the epidemic situation are extremely harmful,” authorities said.

Yet even inside China the use of rewards for information is controversial, particularly as it stands to cast suspicion on large numbers of people who have done nothing wrong, said Zhang Nanning, a lawyer and professor of law at Southeast University.

"It will inflict pain on those people who are reported, especially those who have no symptoms and are totally healthy,” he said. “Given the seriousness of this epidemic, forcing infected people into isolation and medical treatment is legal. But making people without disease the target of this reward and report system isn’t proper.”

But China has a long history of such measures.

“All one-party states rely on ordinary people to police each other – they always have and always will,” said historian Frank Dikotter, who has written extensively about the history of Communist Party rule in China.

In his book The Tragedy of Liberation, he described the use of such tactics in the campaign against the bourgeoisie launched by Mao in the years following his revolutionary victory in 1949. “Denunciation boxes, bright red with a small slit at the top, were provided to make it more convenient for people to denounce others,” Mr. Dikotter wrote.

Denouncing others was also “a routine requirement during the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

In today’s panic-stricken China, lawyers and police have warned of severe punishments for anyone who fails to disclose medical symptoms, even raising the threat of charging them with endangering public safety – which in severe instances can be punished by death. State media published articles to that effect, and on social media local police organizations posted accounts of people who lied about having travelled to Wuhan and defied orders to stay home.

But the use of threats and mass mobilization reflects deeper anxieties among Chinese leaders. “It’s a sign of desperation,” Prof. Wu said.

“The set of governance methods that they used in the Cultural Revolution era have never fully disappeared. And this epidemic – with its cascading effects, including the halt of the economy, public criticism and political stagnation of politics – all reflect how fragile this system can be.”

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