China’s health code system shows the cost of controlling coronavirus

Greg Baker / WIRED

Life in China is dictated by QR codes. Entering a shopping mall, park, or your office building now requires generating a green QR code using an app on your smartphone. Chinese residents have had to get used to having their phones on them at all times since the mandatory nationwide system of coloured health QR codes was rolled out to control the spread of Covid-19. A green health code allows you to move around freely while yellow or red requires self-isolation.
Introduced as one of the main tools to control people’s movement during the pandemic, the system is still widely used even though many Chinese provinces have not seen a single case in weeks giving rise to suspicions it might be here to stay. “It can get frustrating,” says one Beijinger who was among the tens of people we asked for their experiences of living life under this new normal.

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Early in its Covid-19 outbreak, China was using health codes based on the location data provided by a mobile service operator. People entered their phone numbers when prompted by an app, and it would generate a green, yellow, or red arrow, and list all of the cities the user has been for longer than 24 hours during the last 14 days. Seeing all your private location data that is accessible in a matter of seconds is shocking at first, many say, but the process quickly becomes a routine.
Since then things have evolved. All of China’s 23 provinces, as well as municipalities and autonomous regions, use a separate mini-app on social media platform WeChat, which generates a coloured health code based on individual location tracking. This data is supplemented by self-reported information that’s added upon the first use. There are at least 30 mini-apps for generating health codes tied to different locations. The questions for self-reporting for every health code differ, but often require information about the latest travel history and medical irregularities. Ultimately, your QR code is generated with one tap. In the capital of Shaanxi, Xi’an, such a survey even required to enter your birth city and age.
Chinese people rarely spare praise for the health code system. This notion is often backed by the belief that rolling out strict measures has been the reason such a vast country was able to choke the pandemic fast. Some claim that trusting citizens to honestly self-report and isolate if they have been in high risk-areas is naive, and so the health code system is the only way to guarantee restricted movement.
However, when a country rolls out such a one-size-fits-all system, some citizens are bound to be left in the fringes. While much of the elderly population in China own smartphones, there are still some who have never owned one. Especially in rural areas, elderly residents might only have regular cell phones or no devices at all, which leaves them confined to their own homes or villages.

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Rural areas still rely on personal relations and might allow locals to roam around without the health code but rather ensure the safety by blocking the roads from and to the village with rubble, electric poles, or any bulky items to prevent movement. However, when it eventually comes to visiting other cities, such residents are not offered a stable alternative. Children or elderly people can request a paper certificate, however the effectiveness of it depends on how understanding the security guards are. One man has reportedly walked nearly 600 miles to his relatives in another province since he did not own a smartphone and was unable to board any public transportation without displaying the health code.
A lack of a phone may not always even be a choice. One young Xi’an man woke up after a rowdy night out only to find that his phone and documents had been stolen, leaving him in limbo. Since cash is a rare sight in the era of mobile payments, he could not pay for a new ID card without a phone, and without the ability to display a health code, he could not leave his apartment, worrying he would not be able to enter it again. His online friend from Beijing came to his aid and ordered a phone online to be sent to Xi’an.
Chongqing-native Chen Yao also complains about the confusing self-reporting questions. After returning to Beijing from her hometown, she only listed Chongqing as her travel history, which led to failure in generating the code. “When I asked the guards ‘what am I doing wrong’, they laughed and said I also have to put Beijing in,” she says. “They thought it was obvious, but it is not.” There is little help or support for those struggling to generate the correct health codes or trying to investigate why their health code is yellow or red. “There is no human factor,” Chen, adds “when you go somewhere, they only want to see your green health code. They do not care about explanations.”
Such lack of support can also leave people hanging when it comes to bugs in the system. In early April, all Beijing health code users who had registered with foreign passports suddenly saw their codes turn yellow. Even though the bug was fixed in less than a day, it could prevent people from entering their offices or boarding the subway.

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Phone numbers are also important in the game of codes. Everyone buying a SIM card in China has to register with a Chinese ID card or a passport, so every phone number is linked to a person. Beijing-based Kai Wang recalls when his friend’s health code turned yellow amidst a second outbreak in Beijing. “He has never been anywhere close to high-risk areas, but apparently, he used the ID card of his cousin to purchase the SIM card he is currently using. Since his cousin has visited the Xinfadi market, all of the phone numbers tied to his ID card have turned yellow, indicating they have to quarantine,” he explains.
While the health code system seems straightforward, the back end is still shrouded in mystery or inconsistencies that leave gaps for possible cheating. I accidentally stepped into Hebei province, neighbouring Beijing, back when the quarantine was mandatory for anyone returning to the city. Luckily, the app failed to notice the illegal trip, since it lasted less than 24 hours.
Regardless of the app used, all the health codes display the real name of the person, time and date the code has been generated, and the coloured code itself. There seems to be no official regulation on how recent the stamp has to be – the idea is that people should generate it every time it is requested. Even with this, many users swear by using the previously screenshotted ones instead for convenience. They are convinced that guards who have to look through hundreds of health codes every day only care about the colour and pay no mind to the timestamp.
Two citizens we spoke to claim that having two phones and two SIM cards helps them avoid registering the unwanted travel history and quarantining. For instance, leaving one phone in Beijing (or turning it off for the duration of the trip) and using the other one while you travel, ideally registered to someone else, and switching it back upon return.
Regardless of how critical citizens are about the details, the general health code system mostly receives public support. “I am very proud of being Chinese,” one Ankang-based wig maker says. Even with such a generally positive outlook, the Wuhan-native claimed that his green code did not help reassure the locals after he came back to Shaanxi province from his hometown. A similar tendency arose after the second wave locked down several districts around the Beijing Xinfadi wholesale market. People who visited the capital during the last two weeks were denied entry to tourist destinations or hotels unless they could provide documentation on the negative nucleic acid test.
Another surprising benefit of the system has come into aid during the overwhelming helplessness of the lockdown. “My boyfriend has been suffering from heavy anxiety during the quarantine and checking to see that his health code was still green helped him to calm down,” noticed a young Beijinger.
One crucial point that the discussion in China may seem to be missing when it comes to health codes is data privacy issues. People are used to surveillance. Living in China already requires users to give up their private data daily, with mobile payments, social media accounts registered on real ID cards, and endless security cameras, so a health code system serving such a noble purpose does not seem to be too great of a leap.
While China has been constructing and piloting various versions of the social credit system, it may have found an alternative that it can prolong until it becomes permanent. The pandemic may have provided a perfect microclimate for piloting – or straight out implementing – a dream system in the whole country. The city of Hangzhou has already proposed expanding and keeping the health code system, tracking not only location-based physical contacts and location, but their smoking, alcohol consumption, and harvesting step count or sleeping habits from their phones to assign them a health score.
Whether China will jump back on the social credit dream or stay and expand the system that users have already gotten used to, the technical foundation and virtuous facade are present. As the backbone supporting the health code system heard from locals goes: “look how awful they are at controlling the pandemic in other countries.”
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