WeChat Health Code—Savior or Intruder?

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What is the Health Code?

Health Code. cr. New York Times
As the pandemic began to surge and spread in early 2020, the Chinese government quickly launched a mini-program within WeChat, China’s most popular messaging and social media app, to help regulate and track the development of the virus. The program helps detect each citizen’s contagion risks using data such as travel history, time spent in risky areas, and contact with virus carriers.

The tracking program collects three types of data. First, when registering, each user needs to provide their name, ID number, and physical conditions such as fever or other symptoms. They would also need to record facial recognition. Second, the program collects geolocation data to determine where people have been and their time in risky areas. Last, the program collaborates with cellular networks and online transactions to track people’s potential contact with virus carriers. According to the Chinese government, only the government has access to collected data and all data remain exclusive to virus prevention. To maximize each individual’s privacy, the page does not show each user’s complete name and ID number.

The health code is mainly used in each health checkpoint that can be seen in almost every public location, a subway station, a shopping mall, a residential compound, a store, and so on. It is required that every citizen scans a QR code before entering a new location to show that they are healthy and to make tracking easier. The health code is used along with the measurement of temperature using a digital thermometer or sometimes an infrared camera at each health checkpoint. The program also displays each person’s Covid test history and vaccine history record. The program allows users to scan on behalf of such special groups to accommodate people without smartphones and WeChat, such as older people or children. With the program, tracking and containing the further spread of the pandemic is much easier since it only takes a few seconds to scan a QR code and people can return back to a relatively normal state of life.
Pictures below show the procedure that each person needs to go through in a health checkpoint: temperature check, scanning QR code, and presenting code to security guards or staff.

Health Code Pre-Internet

However, the entire program runs on the premise of the Internet. From opening up the program in WeChat to scanning the QR code to collecting all users’ data, the Internet is vital. How would the pandemic and people’s lives be if this all happened before the Internet?

Here is an imagined scenario: For each public location with significant traffic, a quota is set to limit the maximum number of people that can enter at one time. Instead of scanning to collect tracking data online digitally, each person needs to write down their contact, national ID number, and address on a big registration book before entering. Every six hours, each location’s recording book needs to be submitted to the local street office, which then would be forwarded to the district government and lastly the municipal government. The entire process would be done manually, with a person physically carrying them. What the health code does is that the tracking information it collects allows the government to quickly post announcements online to inform people of newly confirmed cases and the exact itinerary of these individuals to remind people with overlapping schedules to get tested and control further spread. Therefore, there would usually only be a few cases at one time in a city, all of them transparent to the public.

A map that Chinese netizens created after reading the news of a patient’s travel history.
China’s cities are divided into districts, which are further broken down into street blocks, each having its own street office. Without the health code, each street office and residential compound would be responsible for making the information about currently infected cases known. Considering how putting all announcements in one place, such as a bulletin board, might promote gathering and is dangerous in a pandemic, the street office would print out a pandemic-related brochure and deliver it to each door in the morning.

Without instantaneous tracking systems, the guards of each residential compound would be at the gate controlling people’s exit and entrance. To minimize the chances of contagion in public transportation, old transportation systems would be replaced by shuttles provided by the street office and residential compounds. People with negative test results would be able to use this service. For anyone using taxis or other forms of transportation besides the shuttle and private cars, they need to register in the residential compound, providing their personal information and the license number of the car. This information would be submitted to upper-level administration along with other data.

Without the Internet, people and the government do not have access to instantaneous information, meaning that there would not be enough transparency on the number of existing cases. This can generate a lot more paranoia and anxiety. Due to this lag in tracking, the only way to prevent more spread is to restrict people’s mobility. They would not be able to go to places freely and their lifestyles would be largely compromised. This can all make people feel frustrated and impatient, especially along with the redundant and tedious registration process. It would be difficult to piece together a complete itinerary for an infected patient due to the massiveness and redundancy of data collection. On the other hand, some may feel angry or suspicious knowing that they have little privacy left.

Health Code’s Representation: Savior or Intruder?

There are multiple layers to representation. Visually, the health code is represented through the prevalent QR codes everywhere, government banners that remind people to use the program, and WeChat, debatably the biggest social media platform in China. Perhaps another sound often associated with the health code is the alarm that goes off if one’s code turns red, meaning that the user may hold potential health risks.

The health code holds more significance beyond such straightforward and surface-level representation.

From the positive side, the universal acceptance and daily use of this program demonstrate people’s trust towards the government and this consensus that personal privacy is not nearly as important as the collective interest and public health of a larger community. To many, especially those whose work involves frequent traveling, this code serves as almost a savior for allowing people to return to a relatively normal state of life. The government certainly pushes on this representation with banners, posters, and other writings or posts on social media. In addition, the access to instantaneous updates on newly confirmed cases and the patient’s travel history assures a sense of safety as people can thus avoid risky locations. To some extent, the code has even established a new bond among individuals as they acknowledge the use of this code as a new social responsibility that civilians should fulfill. The use of this code helps ensure that one can make oneself safe and not harm others, which generates a sense of togetherness.

What a health checkpoint looks like. cr. New York Times

Yet, for some, the code signifies intrusion and promotion of regional discrimination. For example, if one visits or comes from a risky area, the code might automatically turn red, and such code holders would be treated differently. For example, when Beijing had a few newly confirmed cases after months of being free of Covid-19, it became difficult for me to travel and it was mandatory for me to get tested immediately after landing. Some see this as unfair treatment based on one’s origin. The mere span of data collection and the surveillance that involves signifies intrusion and a lack of transparency to many. For some patients, their names and ID number were exposed and consequently faced harsh online attacks.

What the health code represents is a complicated question that boils down to a battle between personal interest and the collective interest of public health. It either prompts people to fulfill civilian responsibility or exposes them to face public condemnation. Chinese cultural values emphasize a lot more on collectivism and little on individualism, contributing to the code’s representation as a savior and unifying force. If put in another cultural setting like the US, the representation may lean more towards that of an intruder.

Picture Attribution

New York Times and Baidu (link included under respective images)

All other pictures come from me.

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