“Show me your code.”
In post-pandemic China, the most efficient way for residents to get around places unfettered and prove that he or she has a clean slate and is free of the highly infectious novel coronavirus is to get a unique QR code issued and verified by a local health authority.
You will need the travel permit in the form of matrix barcodes on your phone to get out and about, even for a quick stop for food at a grocery store around the corner. That is because shop clerks as well as health inspectors guarding community entrances and city limits across the country are mandated to perform the ritual to check one’s code and turn away those without one, especially at the height of the Covid-19 calamity in February, when the pneumonic pathogen swept through China.
Such a QR code system to enter and update one’s health information and keep tabs on people’s movements and aggregations is said to be the brainchild of Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba, which partnered with local authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where the company is based, to tap its expertise in QR code and big data crunching as well as its ubiquitous smartphone apps like AliPay to streamline and digitalize health declaration, monitoring and tracking.
Alibaba squared the idea of “health codes” with local cadres and Zhejiang soon started to spearhead a rollout of a QR code-based reporting and tracking system for its 57.3 million residents in early February. Other provinces and municipalities soon started to take cues, with Tencent, another IT and social networking juggernaut based in southern China, also offering public health agencies access to its WeChat “super-app” to make use of the latter’s all-pervading penetration into the life of netizens and smartphone users.
Health departments in other provinces started to slot mini-apps into the AliPay and WeChat platforms for residents to enter their personal particulars, including ID numbers, residential addresses and contact details, and complete a health questionnaire regarding their daily routines and travel history for the system to generate a QR code based on their input. These codes will also bear colors for easier identification by health inspectors and law enforcers: green means an all-clear so a bearer can go anywhere untrammeled, while yellow means risks, as a person can be a close contact of a Covid-19 patient and must be confined to their homes or an isolation facility and red indicates a confirmed case.
In the following months, local governments also worked in tandem to issue orders to foist QR code adoption on almost all residents, and those who were not familiar with electronic gadgets were told to seek help from their friends or children to get their own codes. Some senior citizens who did not own smartphones were exempted; they were permitted to carry paper certificates bearing pre-approved codes.
All provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions across China now recognize the codes of people crossing borders so travelers and migrant workers can move around as Beijing whips businesses into frenzied production to resuscitate the ailing economy and claw back lost GDP. In the meantime, local governments are told to continue the “grid-by-grid” monitoring of communities and residential quarters and a QR code for almost everyone is making the otherwise daunting task easy.
In April, Xinhua trumpeted the power of high-tech in squashing the plague in China, in a feature report that bragged how authorities could keep watch on one’s movement real-time and track down the close contacts of any patients. The report said everyone would need to have their code scanned for access to public venues and public transportation and a user’s location and whereabouts could also be traced via his AliPay or WeChat app.
“If the man who queued behind you for a cup of coffee at a convenience store two days ago is found infected, the government can analyze related health code data as well as footage from CCTV cameras and identify all close contacts so you will receive a prompt warning to get tested, and, as a precaution, your code will turn yellow,” noted the report.
China News Service also reported that it took health inspectors in the southwestern Yunnan province “30 seconds” to identify 204 close contacts of a new patient, as they relied on a system developed by Tencent and Huawei to compare the patient’s health code information and phone number against a data base of almost all residents in that province.
Other virtues of the codes are obvious: people are spared having to carry paper documents or health certificates when they return to work or travel elsewhere, and physical contacts with others are minimized as checks and verification of identity and travel history can be done with just a quick scan.
Yet local governments have never spelt out how they determine who is healthy enough for a green code and there have been cases in which a resident’s code turns yellow overnight, effectively rendering him homebound. Patients who have been cured and discharged also complain that their codes are still flashing red on their phones and monitor screens and they are usually turned away or roughed up when they travel.
Health and public security officials in various provinces have assured residents that their data would be dealt with carefully. But a senior cadre with Zhejiang’s provincial commission on public health, the province that pioneered the use of the codes, told reporters back in February that concerns over privacy should give way to contagion control and public interests, especially when the government was faced with the exigent need to vanquish the epidemic.
There have also been reports about dissidents, journalists and NGO workers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas being tracked and harassed by agents after they signed up to the code system. Xinhua has also warned people to not to show their codes to anyone other than police officers and authorized inspectors following cases of people being reeled in by internet hustlers and bilked out of tens of thousands of yuan.
Both Alibaba and Tencent have stressed that they are merely offering a backbone system and an access to their apps and that they will never collect or store data themselves, nor are they involved in the vetting process or responsible for any glitches. They say all information is passed onto the government and maintained and updated by health authorities.