It’s a ritual that has become hard to avoid in China – scanning a code with your mobile phone and proving your health credentials via an app, giving you the green light to go. Or not.
Entering residential buildings, businesses or a park, taking a plane, train or taxi, or simply trying to get home, you are well advised to make sure your phone battery is charged. In the wake of the coronavirus, tracking apps have never been so intrusive in China.
You can now count on one hand the number of official daily new cases of the virus. But the number of times your health codes are checked has never been so high. I’ve given up counting how many times a day I have to go through it.
For the central government, it provides a wealth of data on people’s movements. Different tracking systems are available; one runs on the popular social media platform WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp.
The app generates a QR health code which I have to show to gain access to certain places. If it produces a green code, I am allowed to go in. But if the code is red, I have to turn around and go into quarantine for 14 days.
The app determines my health status based on the places I have been. If I have been near a cluster of Covid cases, I may be designated a suspect case. It includes my record of Covid tests. If the last test result was positive, my QR code will be red.
Just yesterday, I received the first dose of my Covid vaccination — now duly noted on my app for the next time I am stopped and checked.
No one openly obliges me to use the tracing app. But in practice, it is impossible to live without it. I tested this out one day, at a checkpoint at the entrance to the building that houses the AFP office in Beijing.
Somewhat disingenuously, I took out my old Nokia mobile telephone – a relic from the pre-smartphone era. Attempting to help me, a security guard found out that it was indeed impossible to scan a QR code using a phone without a camera. For five long minutes, he and his colleagues wondered what to do about this foreigner with his outdated telephone. Letting me in without scanning posed a health risk and could get them in trouble.
“What would an elderly person do, who didn’t have a smartphone?” I wondered, trying to keep a straight face in front of the guards. Amid the confusion, I slipped into the building. Five minutes later, our office received a call ordering me to provide a valid security code.
I don’t know if anyone learned a lesson from this incident. I have noticed that at Beijing’s international airport there is a sign advising anyone who does not have a mobile phone or health code to contact a member of staff. “You won’t be able to pull that trick anymore,” laughed a Chinese friend of mine.
The few adults who do not have mobile phones – as well as children – are given a health code to hang around their neck. It contains their identity and address so that the authorities can check whether they come from an area considered to be at risk.
In one of the most wired countries in the world, where there is little debate about issues of privacy and data protection, giant tech companies and telephone operators have no difficulty tracking Chinese people wherever they go
The system has enabled journeys from one end of the country to another to resume. But going on holiday has turned into an obstacle course.
A passenger taking a domestic flight must present a series of different codes: one at check-in, sometimes a second one mid-transit, and a third on arrival. At each stage the passenger must fill in a digital form on their telephone. But so far in many cases the system is not designed for foreign passport-holders.
And if you are in a hurry, you don’t want to come up against the more diligent checkpoint guards.