A Chinese health app, developed to enforce the Communist party’s draconian Covid-19 restrictions, is being repurposed to tighten political control on dissidents and others deemed to be troublemakers.
Only the very young and very old are exempt from the compulsory National Health Code System. The ‘traffic light app’, as it has been dubbed, assigns Chinese citizens a colour code: green, yellow or red to signify Covid infection risk. Those with green are free to move around; red can mean instant quarantine. The app requires users to submit information about their health status and other personal details, while at the same time harvesting online behavioural and location data. The precise way people are categorised is far from clear, but the authorities, including public security, have unfettered access. The information is managed by what are described as local ‘big data management bureaus’.
Cities are blanketed with automated code readers – at the entrances to underground stations, offices, malls, apartment blocks, banks and even in taxis. Movement is nigh-on impossible without a green code. Main roads into the southern city of Shenzhen have even been policed by drones hovering above traffic and displaying a QR code which drivers had to scan before being allowed entry.
But it seems that Covid isn’t the only thing that can affect your traffic light status. Earlier this month hundreds of desperate investors, victims of an alleged financial scam, were grounded by the app when they tried to travel to seek redress from a bank that had frozen their money. They had been fighting to get their savings back, but when they tried to reach the bank’s headquarters in Zhengzhou, they received red health warnings on their Covid-19 apps. These investors were then herded into quarantine hotels guarded by police and put on trains home the following day.