Imagine your daily routine being entirely dependent on a smart phone app. Leaving your home, taking the subway, going to work, entering cafes, restaurants and shopping malls — each move, dictated by the color shown on your screen. Green: you're free to proceed. Amber or Red: you're barred from entry.
This has been the reality for hundreds of millions of people in China since midway through the coronavirus crisis — and it could yet stay that way for the foreseeable future, as the country battles to recover from it.
Relying on mobile technology and big data, the Chinese government has used a color-based "health code" system to control people's movements and curb the spread of the coronavirus. The automatically generated quick response codes, commonly abbreviated to QR codes, are assigned to citizens as an indicator of their health status.
Although authorities have yet to make the health codes compulsory, in many cities, citizens without the app wouldn't be able to leave their residential compounds or enter most public places.
A few months on, with the virus largely contained and lockdown measures gradually lifted across most of China, the small square barcodes have remained in place and are still ruling people's lives.
Health Barcode for foreigner in China
How does it work?
The Chinese government has enlisted the help of the country's two internet giants — Alibaba (BABA) and Tencent (TCEHY) — to host the health code systems on their popular smartphone apps.
Alibaba's mobile payment app Alipay and Tencent's messaging app Wechat are both ubiquitous in China, each used by hundreds of millions of people. Placing the health codes on these platforms means easy access for many. The system was first launched on February 11, 2020 by Alipay.
To obtain a health code, citizens have to fill in their personal information including their name, national identity number or passport number, and phone number on a sign-up page. They're then asked to report their travel history and whether they have come into contact with any confirmed or suspected Covid-19 patients in the past 14 days. They also need to tick the boxes for any symptoms they might have: fever, fatigue, dry cough, stuffy nose, running nose, throat ache or diarrhea.
After the information is verified by authorities, each user will be assigned a QR code in red, yellow green or gold (vaccinated).
Users with a red code have to go into government quarantine or self-quarantine for 14-days, users with an amber code will be quarantined for seven days, while users with a green code can move around the city freely, according to a statement issued by local authorities.
The health codes can also serve as a tracker for people's moves in public areas, as residents have their QR codes scanned as they enter public places. Once a confirmed case is diagnosed, authorities are able to quickly backtrack where the patient has been and identify people who have been in contact with that individual.
Liu Yuewen, a big data expert working for the police in southern Yunnan province, said at a press conference in February that the health code data would be destroyed when efforts to control the epidemic end. "No one will be able to see any data without the permission of the epidemic prevention and control headquarters," he said.
Some cities have already started to remove the health codes from some parts of residents' lives. In Hangzhou, where the QR codes were first rolled out, the government announced on March 21, 2021 that residents are no longer required to show their health codes at public places, such as subway stations, malls and hotels. But in many other places, such as Beijing and Shanghai, the small square bar codes still decide where people can and can't go in their daily lives.