China’s Health Code app showcases the extreme smart surveillance regime

Yuki Yuen
Yuki Yuen
Aug 18 · 10 min read

You are scanned everywhere and be labelled a colour. If you are given a red code, you are locked up.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

The pandemic has given an excuse for the Chinese government to introduce a smart app to collect personal data on a massive scale, tighten social control and strengthen the effectiveness of the surveillance system.

Health Code is already enforced in more than 200 cities in China and is rolling out national wide.

Hong Kong is shrouded by immense fear and worries as it is also in the plan. People are already panicking about how Health Code would be used to surveil their every movement and to suppress the opposition.

For travellers and people working in China, the system also applies to them.

As a foreigner, you should be aware that Health Code is different from the COVID app in your country. Your privacy is not protected when you are in China. Not only will your movement be tracked and be sent to a server, but your data will also be shared by police. You would have no control over the information while the government and people you do not know would have unlimited access to your data.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: 人民网-山西频道

What is Health Code?

Health Code runs on the digital platforms of Alipay and WeChat. It runs through a real-name registration system and acts as a smart pass for people to travel and access to services. Health Code requires you to provide your personal information, travel history and health record to rate your risk of contracting COVID-19. You will be given either red, yellow or green code.

If you are given a green code, you are allowed to travel freely. A yellow label indicates you are a potential virus carrier and should be isolated at home. A red label means you are a confirmed case and should be in quarantine.

A smart technology atrociously deprives freedom and intrudes privacy

Health code is not created to improve your personal health, it is developed to maximise the control from the government.

In order to get access to some services such as public transport or getting into a supermarket or a restaurant, it is mandatory for you to have a Health Code with you on your phone showing that you are healthy with a Green Label. Although the government claims that it is voluntary to get a Health Code, you will be excluded from society if you don’t have one. You will be marginalised and it will bring enormous inconvenience to you living in China.

The Times’s analysis found that every time when a code is scanned, the current location of that person would be sent to the system’s server. It allows authorities to track individuals’ movements by their digital footprints. Moreover, the New York Times revealed that the data collected would be shared with the police to strengthen social control.

Image for post
Image for post
A subway guard in Hangzhou checks phones while helping a man set up the Alipay Health Code software. Everyone must have a green code to get through. Captured from Video by Paul Mozur

Whether or not to install the Health Code app is not voluntary in nature although the government said it is a personal choice.

If you do not have a code, you might not be able to enter both public and private areas. It poses barriers for individuals accessing essential services including public transport. In order to maintain your daily life, it is necessary for you to have one.

Image for post
Image for post
There is a version for foreigners. The government suggests you get a Health Code as this would be a pass for you to travel in public areas. Source: 中国侨网

Your personal details will be collected and stored in the government database. Together with the data provided by tech giants such as Tencent and Alibaba, Health Code contributes to developing an ultimate smart surveillance system. Not only does the government have control over all of your personal data but also you have no ideas who would have access to your data and how they would be used.

Information integrity in China is behind and vague as the laws protecting personal data are not stringent. Experts warn that there is a foreseeable threat to people’s privacy and misuse of information as the mass collection of personal data is accelerating.

Image for post
Image for post
You have to register with your passport and provide your personal details. Source: 中国侨网

Have you watched Nosedive from Black Mirror?

Lacie’s life was built on a social score rated by others. The system determined where you live, what job you get, what kind of friend you have. If you are at a lower-ranking, you are ostracised by society and cannot travel by plane or own a good car.

Image for post
Image for post

Did you think it was surreal and would only happen in a TV drama? Below is what proposed to implement in China.

CNN BUSINESS reported that the government in Hangzhou has proposed to utilise Health Code permanently and create a health score system collecting data such as daily alcohol consumption, tobacco use, steps, and sleep time from individuals. People would be rated according to their lifestyle and would be lower the ranking if they engaged in unhealthy activities. The proposal has been taken down from the official website as it provoked widespread criticism about the overt intrusion to privacy. The proposal is now been took down from the website. However, whether or not the proposal would be implemented in the future is still not clear.

Image for post
Image for post
From CNN by Hangzhou Municipal Health Commission

A threat to be labelled Red if you are considered by the government as ‘unhealthy’

There are worries about Health Code would be used to suppress the political activists and dissents in Hong Kong. It is a powerful smart system that could be misused easily.

Now York Times reported that Health Code is criticised as non-transparent as the details and rules are not public. People would not know how they are labelled as red or yellow and how can they turn it back to green. A man’s code turned from green to red a day before his departure from his hometown to Hangzhou with no reasons. A woman who had a similar situation also expressed her helplessness. She was frustrated about not knowing when her code would turn back to green.

You don’t know how they set the rules and you have no clue why you are labelled as red or yellow. The official is not helpful. You can just wait.

What determines you as healthy? How does the system work? Who can turn the code back to green so that you can go back a normal life?

There is no clear answer. The creator of the Alipay said Health Code draws a conclusion of whether an individual is at risk of infection by an algorithm and big data.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

If Health Code is unleashed in Hong Kong, you can foresee that people will be living in an intangible prison. By giving you a red or yellow code, your movement is restricted. It indicates that you should be isolated in quarantine. You are not allowed to go out to get support. No one would help you as you are identified as a potential virus carrier. Police would be provided with your location and arrest you in the name of breaking the law.

The authorities would justify the act saying that they are doing the right thing to contain the virus.

Image for post
Image for post
Protest in Hong Kong. Photo by Manson Yim on Unsplash

The Chinese government is working intensively trying to eliminate any political movement in Hong Kong. The dispute on the extradition bill, the pass of the National Security Law, the arresting of the media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the famous young activist Agnes Ting Chow, every event has demonstrated the oppression from China government which intends to suppress dissents and maximise social control. There is no trust between the people and the government.

All the treats are real.

A story from a Chinese friend who is traumatised by the extreme controlling power

Joe, a Chinese friend of the author, who fed to Australia because of the fear of oppression from China government, has his whole family traumatised under the governance of the communist party. They are victims of the Great Cultural Revolution and the One-Child Policy.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels

Joe said the Chinese government forced them to provide data by scanning the Health Code. It divides peoples into three categories and they discriminated others. Having no specific and clear standards of rating people’s health, Joe said the app is unreliable.

The government can track you without scanning.

‘ A driver who drove through a bridge above an infection area without getting off his car was given a red code suddenly days later saying that he has been to the high-risk area.’ Joe told the author, without scanning, the government still know where do people go.

Image for post
Image for post
You have to show the green code in order to get into a city. Photo provided by Joe

He doubts that the Health Code is developed to serve the political purpose and people who are seen as disobedient such as political activists would have a high chance to be given a red code.

‘The Chinese government will do whatever they can to control you. There are laws but the party can reinterpret the laws whenever they want.’

Joe believes that they will be punished by taking away their freedom and quality of life, finding themselves isolated physically and mentally. It is impossible for them to form a power posing a threat to the government.

‘They have to surrender in order to exchange participation in society.’

‘In the past, if you say something bad about the party or you engage in a conflict with some rich and powerful people, you would be arrested for whatever reason. Some people died during the detention period and their families were rejected to obtain the CCTV recordings. Bodies were treated immediately and the truth of the death is buried forever. Families are silent under threats.

This is how it works in China.

Health Code would be a new form of publishment which could be implemented instantly, smartly and effectively. People could easily be locked up in their own houses with either a red or yellow code.

Joe is not being optimistic about Hong Kong future.

‘If not Health Code, the communist party would have thousand of other methods to control you.’

Image for post
Image for post
Protest in Hong Kong. Photo by Oscar Chan from Pexels

Are all COVID app bad? A comparison between Australia and China

The Australian government has also developed an app to fight the pandemic. COVIDSafe is a contact tracing app developed by the government which promises to gather data with integrity respecting privacy.

COVIDSafe has an inherent difference from Health Code in China. It does not assume everyone is a virus carrier, instead, it has prioritised privacy and self-determination of individuals rooting a belief of people understanding the obligation of protecting each other.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by author

How does it work?

The app can be installed your phone voluntarily and it would not record your location. You can also use a pseudonym. All you need is to provide your age range, mobile number and postcode.

It runs on the background of your phone. It uses Bluetooth to detect other app users nearby. Says you have met another app user in a supermarket and a week later you are tested positive to the virus. You would be asked by the health department for consent to provide information from your app. The authority would contact the person that you have met for a test. According to the government, nobody can access encrypted information including you and the government. The information will also be destroyed after the pandemic is over.

COVIDSafe is more like a short term strategy embedded with respect and information integrity. On the contrary, Health Code is a monitoring system aiming to manifest a strict social control.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by author

If you live in a democratic country like Australia, you may properly be provided with sophisticated details about the enforcement of a measure. Your rights are concerned and protected having the power to say no to a policy without fear of compromising your quality of life or risking your freedom.

Undeniably, Health Code could be more effective as it would not encounter barriers during its enforcement under the governance of the authoritarianism.

However, would people want to live in a smart city with extreme surveillance? Are they willing to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for life? Would people believe in a government which is not elected by its people and run by a dictatorship which its interest is to sustain power eternally no matter whatever it will take?

I guess people would have their answers.

We should all be worried and aware of how the Chinese government sustains its dictatorship behind the veil of a smart city. To safeguard our privacy, to protect our freedom and to resist the surveillance from the authoritarian, we have to say No to Health Code.

Image for post
Image for post
A student wore a face mask while protesting. Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

Assay

Insights on humanity, power and politics

Yuki Yuen

Written by

Yuki Yuen

Social Worker. Former Journalist. Freelance Writer. Feminist. Coffee lover. 兄弟爬山。各自努力

Assay

Assay

Raise consciousness of individual self and facilitate social changes from bottom-up using a social justice perspective

Yuki Yuen

Written by

Yuki Yuen

Social Worker. Former Journalist. Freelance Writer. Feminist. Coffee lover. 兄弟爬山。各自努力

Assay

Assay

Raise consciousness of individual self and facilitate social changes from bottom-up using a social justice perspective

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store