Authorities in Hangzhou, one of China’s most culturally celebrated cities currently known as a major tech hub and home to tech behemoth Alibaba, have been facing a backlash from local netizens after they suggested that health-tracking measures implemented to fend off COVID-19 be normalized. The suggestion mainly revolves around enforcing the use of the health tracking app introduced in the city several months ago even after the pandemic is over.
Hangzhou was one of the first cities to implement the health code system that swiftly swept over China. Currently, every Chinese city has its own app (or more likely a WeChat/Alipay mini-program) that assigns a color code to users based on their health and travel history marking them as low risk (green), moderate risk (yellow) or high risk (red). These apps are used to determine whether a person is safe to be let into an office building, a café, a residential community and so on.
The health code system suggested by Hangzhou authorities is slightly different from the one currently in place. According to local media reports, this health code will be divided into a variety of colors, and the health score will be based on personal medical records, physical examination results, lifestyle data, etc. Users will be assigned a score out of 100 points.
Factors that could affect one’s score include sleep and exercise data and habits like drinking and smoking. For example, drinking 200 ml of alcohol could result in a drop of 1.5 points in health score, and smoking 5 cigarettes in a drop of 3 points. To get back 5 points, the person would have to complete a walk of roughly 15,000 steps.
“After the gradient health code system is implemented in Hangzhou, locals will have a blind date code, just scan it and you will learn answers to all the uncomfortable questions you were afraid to ask – salary, marriage history, house ownership. There will also be a QR code for ordering food, it will be like choosing karaoke songs, the dishes that you liked before will be at the very front. For death, there will also be a funeral code, people who’ve been in contact with the diseased within one year before he passed away will automatically receive a eulogy notice. Are you asking about privacy? What is privacy?” wrote Weibo user Kongshiyun in a sarcastic response to the news.
Chinese internet users are often believed to be more tolerant towards having their personal data collected online. Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, famously said in 2018, “I think Chinese people are more open or less sensitive about the privacy issue. If they are able to trade privacy for convenience, for safety, for efficiency, in a lot of cases they’re willing to do that.” His statement was deemed controversial and should be taken with a grain of salt, yet there is certainly truth in it. However, the Hangzhou plan has shown that there is a fine line between trading privacy for public convenience and trading privacy to be shamed for personal lifestyle choices, a line that locals do not want to cross.
“Job interview: According to your health records from the past three years (as reflected) on your health code, our company determined that your health status is ill-suited for overtime work, so we don’t have a position for you. Thanks for your understanding,” Sixth Tone quoted a post on Zhihu, China’s analog of Quora.
Seeing the backlash caused by the announcement, local authorities rushed to underscore that the health code was just a suggestion and not a final policy proposal. The head of the information center of Hangzhou’s municipal health commission noted that the health code “is only a design idea.” The original intention of this idea was to promote the development of a healthy lifestyle. “Now, according to the opinions and suggestions of all parties, further research is underway. At present, there is no official plan to launch it,” said an announcement from Hangzhou TV
“Although Hangzhou city government has not decided on how to use this health code, it brought up a very concerning issue: will the freedom and privacy Chinese citizens transferred to the state for the sake of virus containment backfire in an ugly way? There were no talks about having a ‘sunset clause’ on how to make sure personal data and collecting methods do not further infringe citizens’ privacy,” said Ms. Li, a Master’s in Public Policy candidate from Nankai University.