Living by the code: In China, COVID-era controls may outlast the virus

His phone’s health
code app — a digital pass indicating possible exposure to the coronavirus — was
green, which meant he could travel. His home city, Changsha, had no COVID-19
cases, and he had not left in weeks.

Then his app turned
red, flagging him as high risk. Airport security tried to put him in
quarantine, but he resisted. Xie accused authorities of meddling with his
health code to bar him from travelling.

“The Chinese
Communist Party has found the best model for controlling people,” he said in
December. This month, police detained Xie, a government critic, accusing him of
inciting subversion and provoking trouble.

The pandemic has
given Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, a powerful case for deepening the
Communist Party’s reach into the lives of 1.4 billion citizens, filling out his
vision of the country as a model of secure order, in contrast to the “chaos of
the West.” In the two years since officials isolated the city of Wuhan in the
first lockdown of the pandemic, the Chinese government has honed its powers to
track and corral people, backed by upgraded technology, armies of neighbourhood
workers and broad public support.

Emboldened by their
successes in stamping out COVID-19, Chinese officials are turning their
sharpened surveillance against other risks, including crime, pollution and
“hostile” political forces. This amounts to a potent techno-authoritarian tool
for Xi as he intensifies his campaigns against corruption and dissent.

The foundation of the
controls is the health code. Local authorities, working with tech companies,
generate a user’s profile based on location, travel history, test results and
other health data. The code’s colour — green, yellow or red — determines
whether the holder is allowed into buildings or public spaces. Its use is
enforced by legions of local officials with the power to quarantine residents
or restrict their movements.

These controls are
key to China’s goal of stamping out the virus entirely within its borders — a
strategy on which the party has staked its credibility despite the emergence of
highly contagious variants. After China’s initial missteps in letting the
coronavirus spread, its “zero COVID” approach has helped keep infections low,
while the death toll continues to grow in the United States and elsewhere. But
Chinese officials have at times been severe, isolating young children from
their parents or jailing people deemed to have broken containment rules.

City officials did
not respond to questions about assertions by Xie. While it is hard to know what
goes on in individual cases, the government itself has signaled it wants to use
these technologies in other ways.

Officials have used
pandemic health monitoring systems to flush out fugitives. Some fugitives have
been tracked down by their health codes. Others who avoided the apps have found
life so difficult that they have surrendered.

For all of its
outward sophistication, though, China’s surveillance system remains labour
intensive. And while the public has generally supported Beijing’s intrusions
during the pandemic, privacy concerns are growing.

“China’s pandemic
controls have really produced great results, because they can monitor down to
every individual,” said Mei Haoyu, 24, an employee at a dental hospital in
Hangzhou, a city in eastern China, who worked as a volunteer early in the

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“But if after the
pandemic ends these means are still there for the government,” he added,
“that’s a big risk for ordinary people.”


A COVID-19 cluster
that rippled across Zhejiang province in east China late last year began with a
funeral. When one attendee, a health worker, tested positive in a routine test,
100 tracers sprang into action.

Within hours,
officials alerted authorities in Hangzhou, 45 miles away, that a potential
carrier of the coronavirus was at large there: a man who had driven to the
funeral days earlier. Government workers found and tested him — also positive.

Using digital health
code records, teams of tracers plotted out a network of people to test based on
where the man had been: a restaurant, a mahjong parlor, card-playing rooms.
Within a couple of weeks, they stopped the chain of infections in Hangzhou — in
all, 29 people there were found to be infected.

China’s capacity to
trace such outbreaks has relied heavily on the health code. Residents sign up
for the system by submitting their personal information in one of a range of
apps. The health code is essentially required, because without it, people
cannot enter buildings, restaurants or even parks. Before the pandemic, China
already had a vast ability to track people using location data from cellphones;
now, that monitoring is far more expansive.

In recent months,
authorities in various cities have expanded their definition of close contact
to include people whose cellphone signals were recorded within as much as half
a mile of an infected person.

The party’s
experiment in using data to control the flow of people has helped keep COVID-19
at bay. Now these same tools potentially give officials greater power to manage
other challenges.

Xi has praised
Hangzhou’s “City Brain” centre — which pulls together data on traffic, economic
activity, hospital use and public complaints — as a model for how China can use
technology to address social problems.

Since 2020, Hangzhou
has also used video cameras on streets to check whether residents are wearing
masks. One district monitored home power consumption to check whether residents
were sticking to quarantine orders. The city of Luoyang installed sensors on
the doors of residents quarantining at home, in order to notify officials if
they were opened.

With so much
invested, financially and politically, in technological solutions, failures can
have big repercussions.

During the recent
lockdown in Xi’an, a city of 13 million in northwest China, the health code
system crashed twice in two weeks, disrupting the lives of residents who had to
update their apps each day with proof that they had taken COVID-19 tests.

By focusing on
technology and surveillance, Chinese officials may be neglecting other ways of
protecting lives, such as expanding participation in public health programs,
wrote Chen Yun, a scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a recent
assessment of China’s response to COVID-19.

The risk, she wrote,
is that “a vicious cycle arises: People become increasingly marginalised, while
technology and power increasingly penetrate everywhere.”


For more than a
decade, the Communist Party has been shoring up its armies of grassroots
officials who carry out door-to-door surveillance. The party’s new digital
apparatus has supercharged this older form of control.

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China has mobilised
4.5 million so-called grid workers to fight the outbreak, according to state
media — roughly 1 in every 250 adults. Under the grid management system,
cities, villages and towns are divided into sections, sometimes of just a few
blocks, which are then assigned to individual workers.

During normal times,
their duties included pulling weeds, mediating disputes and keeping an eye on
potential troublemakers.

Amid the pandemic,
those duties mushroomed.

Workers were given
the task of guarding residential complexes and recording the identities of all
who entered. They called residents to make sure they had been tested and
vaccinated, and helped those in lockdown take out their trash.

They also were given
powerful new tools.

The central
government has directed police, as well as internet and telephone companies, to
share information about residents’ travel history with community workers so
that the workers can decide whether residents are considered high-risk.

In a county in
southwestern Sichuan province, the ranks of grid workers tripled to more than
300 over the course of the pandemic, said Pan Xiyu, 26, one of the new hires.
Pan, who is responsible for about 2,000 residents, says she spends much of her
time distributing leaflets and setting up loudspeakers to explain new rules and
encourage vaccination.

It can be exhausting.
“I have to be on call at all times,” she said.

And the pressure to
stifle outbreaks can make officials overzealous, prioritizing adherence to the
rules no matter the cost.

During the lockdown
of Xi’an, hospital workers refused medical care to a woman who was eight months
pregnant because her COVID-19 test result had expired hours earlier. She lost
the baby, an episode that inspired widespread public fury. But some blamed the
heavy burden placed upon low-level workers to stamp out infections.

“In their view, it’s
always preferable to go too far than be too soft-handed, but that’s the
pressure created by the environment nowadays,” Li Naitang, a retired worker in
Xi’an, said of local officials.

Still, for defenders
of China’s stringent measures, the results are undeniable. The country has
recorded only 3.3 coronavirus deaths per 1 million residents, compared with
about 2,600 per 1 million in the US In mid-January, Xi’an officials announced
zero new infections; this past week, the lockdown was lifted entirely.

The government’s
success in limiting infections means its strategy has earned something that has
proved elusive in many other countries: widespread support.

Pan said her job was
easier now than at the start of the pandemic. Then, residents often argued when
told to scan their health codes or wear masks. Now, she said, people have come
to accept the health measures.


Indeed, many Chinese
fear that loosening controls could leave room for a resurgence of COVID-19,
said Shen Maohua, a blogger in Shanghai who has written about the pandemic and
privacy concerns under his pen name, Wei Zhou.

“For many people, I
think, it’s actually a kind of mental trade-off,” he said. “They’re giving up
some rights in return for absolute security.”

The question is how
long people will continue to find that exchange worthwhile. Already, social
media users have complained about the apparent arbitrariness with which they
can find themselves blocked from travelling because of software glitches or
policies that vary by city.

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Even officials have
acknowledged the problems. A state-run news outlet this month published an
analysis of each province’s criteria for a health code to turn from green to
yellow. It concluded that, for most provinces, the answer was unclear.

“You never know if
your planned itinerary will be cancelled, or if your travel plans can be
realised,” the article said.

Some government
critics warn that the costs will go far beyond inconvenience.

Wang Yu, a well-known
human rights lawyer, says she believes authorities have weaponised the health
code to try to stop her from working. In November, as she was returning to
Beijing after a work trip, she tried to log her travel on her health code app,
as required. But when she selected Jiangsu province, the drop-down menu listed
only one city, Changzhou, where she had not been and which had just recorded
several infections. If she chose that, she would most likely be refused entry
to Beijing.

In the past, security
officers had to physically follow her to interfere with her work. Now, she
worries, they can restrict her movements from afar.

“Wherever you go,
you’ll never be lost,” said Wang, who stayed with relatives in Tianjin until
her app abruptly returned to normal a month later.

Less high-profile
critics are vulnerable, too. Several local governments have pledged to keep a
close eye on petitioners — people who travel to Beijing or other cities to
lodge complaints about officials — because of their supposed potential to
violate travel rules.

The health code “can
also easily be used as a dirty trick for stability maintenance,” said Lin
Yingqiang, a longtime petitioner from Fuzhou, in southeastern China. He said
that he was taken off a train by police before a party leaders’ meeting in
November. His health code app turned yellow, requiring that he return to Fuzhou
for quarantine, although he had not been anywhere near a confirmed case.

Officials have openly
promoted using virus control measures in ways unlinked to the pandemic. In the
Guangxi region of southern China, a judge noticed that the grid workers’
accounting of local residents was “more thorough than the census.” That gave
him an idea.

“Why not use this
opportunity to have epidemic grid workers find people we couldn’t find before,
or send summonses to places that were hard to reach before?” he said, according
to a local news report. As a result, 18 summonses were successfully delivered.

Local governments
across China have sought to assure people that their health code data will not
be abused. The central government has also issued regulations promising data
privacy. But many Chinese people assume that authorities can acquire whatever
information they want, no matter the rules.

Zan Aizong, a former
journalist in Hangzhou, says the expansion of surveillance could make it even
easier for authorities to break up dissenters’ activities. He has refused to
use the health code, but he finds it hard to explain his reasoning to workers
at checkpoints.

“I can’t tell them
the truth — that I’m resisting the health code over surveillance,” he said,
“because if I mentioned resistance, they’d think that was ridiculous.”© 2024 The New York Times Company

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