Coronavirus surveillance: Health app tracking citizens’ every move ‘here to stay’

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China was initially widely commended for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It managed to go from the first country on the planet to experience an outbreak to shortly having contained the virus across the country. China was thus the first state in the world to leave lockdown and attempt to return to normality, setting the example for the rest of the world.

Despite this, the communist country has been severely criticised over the extent to which it has implemented draconian measures.

As millions of Chinese citizens left lockdown in April, their freedom going forward depended on the colour of QR codes installed on their phones.

The new Health Code app, run on the Alipay and WeChat platforms specifically designed for the Chinese government, gives users a code of colours: green, yellow, red, with their ability to move freely is wholly dependent on their having a green colour code, which signals their being free of coronavirus.

However, even after weeks of no new positive tests in many Chinese provinces, the system is still widely used.

Yanqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told there is now a rise in suspicions that the app might be here to stay.

When asked whether she thought the Chinese state would harness the new powers it has created for itself through the pandemic, she said: “This would be a good opportunity.

“I think right now there have been efforts to implement such acts, with the Health Code app, they’ve harnessed and started to log all of this information about people.

“You can see that this app is going to stay.

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“They’re going to continue to be asked to enter and log their information.

“The pandemic has definitely created an opportunity for the government to gather more information and put forward this mechanism where it will continue to stay after the pandemic.

“They use surveillance to curb free speech, this has been going on before the pandemic; the pandemic has just created this opportunity for them to make citizens enter their information.

“The Health Code is still in use so a lot of data collection will continue and it will be used in the future to monitor people whether they speak critically, what they’re doing, their movement, all kinds of information – I’m sure.”

The app prompts users to enter their phone numbers, with location data then provided by a mobile service operator.

When given a number the app generates a colour code, and in a flash, lists all of the cities the user has visited for longer than 24 hours in the last 14 days.

Separate mini-apps have since sprouted from this larger, main system, finding themselves in all of China’s 23 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions like Xinjiang and Tibet.

Despite only needing to know location and health data, many of the mini-apps require users to enter their city of birth and age.


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In recent months, China has consistently only recorded a handful of coronavirus cases.

The fact has left many Chinese citizens full of praise for the draconian measures.

Although Ms Wang admitted that many were “discontented” with the severe restrictions placed on their already thin freedoms.

Despite the tight grip China currently has on the coronavirus, pockets of outbreaks have flared up.

Earlier this week, 137 new asymptomatic cases of the virus were recorded in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

These were the first local cases recorded for ten days in mainland China.

The state immediately moved to force mass testing on the population in a bid to nip the outbreak in the bud.

Nearly five million people in Kashgar are currently being tested.

Schools in the city have been closed down, while residents are now unable to leave the area unless they have negative testing documents.

Even before the outbreak, citizens in Kashgar and elsewhere around China were subject to “routine” testing.

This is as the state moves to make regular testing a mandatory procedure.

Currently, China has an infection count of just over 85,000, with 4,634 deaths.

The country doesn’t count asymptomatic cases in its total infection rates.

Although China has been successful, a new survey appears to suggest that the country has lost its battle to mould a saviour image of itself in handling the pandemic.

A YouGov-Cambridge-Globalism Project survey – designed with the Guardian – questioned 26,000 people in 25 countries over their thoughts of China’s actions during the pandemic, with most people believing the country was responsible for the start of the outbreak and accusing Beijing of not being transparent about the problem at the beginning.

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