Code red: China’s Covid health apps rule life but are ripe for abuse

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the daily lives of most of China’s 1.4 billion citizens depend on the color of a health code on a smartphone app.

Entering any establishment, taking the bus, walking in a park, or in some cities even going home depends on the approval of the health code applications which are at the heart of the fight against Covid-19 , but which have already been used by some officials as a tool of social control.

Beijing resident Guo Rui recently uncovered the breadth of data that powers the Health Code System – which combines cellphone location tracking and government-issued ID numbers with test results Covid, vaccination status and other personal information.

Simply buying cold medicine, which now requires registration with an ID card for purchase, changed Guo’s health code status. When she then scanned a QR code to enter a public place, her phone displayed a pop-up message asking her to get tested. “An alarm started going off on my phone,” she said. “Everyone around me immediately backed off.”

The pop-up meant that Guo was not allowed to enter a public place until the new test was processed and the data entered into her health code app. People whose codes turn red should self-quarantine at home or in an official facility.

Zhengzhou, capital of the central province of Henan, this month offered a demonstration of the dangers of these digital controls. City officials have changed the codes of more than a thousand people to red to prevent them from protesting the potential loss of their savings at local rural banks that are on the verge of collapse.

“They gave me a red health code and claimed I was an overseas traveler,” said Yang, a 32-year-old Beijing resident and depositor who was unable to travel to Zhengzhou. due to the change of his status in the country. the Henan app that he would need to use while in the province.

China’s first health code apps were developed by tech giants Alibaba and Tencent at the start of the pandemic as simple contact reporting tools similar to those built by Google, Apple and other software companies for use in many other countries.

But as President Xi Jinping doubled down on his strict zero Covid policy aimed at eliminating transmission of the virus, the patchwork of health code apps across the country and the systems that support them have rapidly grown in scope and in sophistication.

They now allow health authorities to quickly control the movements of thousands of people to suppress epidemics. A Beijing district that detected three new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, for example, needed just hours to quarantine 9,785 contacts at home and ban 77,388 others from entering the premises. public until they have completed two Covid tests over a three-day period.

Graphic showing how health codes have become essential to life in China

The Chinese government insists the system is purely for sanitary purposes. In Zhengzhou, the local Communist Party’s anti-corruption body on Wednesday punished five city officials for changing codes “without permission”.

“It is absolutely forbidden to change people’s health codes for any reason other than epidemic prevention and control,” Lei Zhenglong, deputy director of the National Health Commission’s disease prevention office, warned on Friday. .

But the health code system is growing alongside a wide array of technologies pushed by Xi to ensure order. Digital social security cards, digital currency, surveillance cameras, and social credit systems create a grand experiment for authoritarian governance in the 21st century.

Maya Wang, from the US campaign group Human Rights Watch, said Covid codes “allow authorities to control the population in the name of public health”, citing a lack of transparency about how they work as a major concern.

“The health code is an expression and manifestation of the underlying philosophy of what the Chinese government calls new social management, which is based on the use of technology for social control and governance,” said Wang.

Delivery men wait to pick up online food orders from 'Dancing Duck' restaurant in Zhengzhou, capital of central Henan province
Delivery men wait to pick up their online orders in Zhengzhou © VCG/Getty Images

Escaping the code system is virtually impossible. Business establishments that do not verify the status of their customers may be fined or closed.

At the entrance to grocery stores or restaurants in Beijing, the staff only let in people whose codes display green and whose telephones announce in an automated voice: “pass”.

Public procurement records in Alibaba’s eastern Chinese hometown of Hangzhou provide insight into the digital plumbing of the health code system the company helped build in the city.

This month, a joint venture between the e-commerce group and two state-owned companies won a 12-month contract to run the system, which must be robust enough to handle 25,000 information requests per second.

Records show that Hangzhou’s 12 million people are separated into multiple data sets, each with different rules. A dataset for workers in cold chain delivery and logistics ensures they receive a health code orange for skipping a Covid-19 test. But a “whitelist” for pandemic workers and other “special groups” contains instructions to protect them from getting codes orange or red in the line of duty.

Public concern over the health code system has grown since revelations of its use in Henan to restrict the movements of 1,317 bank depositors.

“It’s a new era of digital handcuffs,” one said. “Henan banks gobble up depositors’ assets, [and the] The Henan government gives red codes to depositors.

Zhengzhou authorities also appear to have targeted a group of property buyers demanding action against a financially troubled developer.

Melody Guo believes her code red was triggered by a visit to the local banking regulator to deal with the blocking of an apartment development by property developer Sunac for which she paid Rmb2mn ($300,000).

“There was no official explanation for my code red,” Guo said. “I cried and cried in front of the neighborhood committee workers, begging them to change my code and offer me a solution, but they said they couldn’t.”

On June 16, as reports of Zhengzhou’s misuse of health codes flooded Chinese media, its code turned green again.

Nian Liu contributed reporting from Beijing

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