Health and travel codes

In the fight against COVID19, China mobilized its mobile infrastructure (pun intended) to track its citizen and foreigners alike by introducing health and travel codes. Although these are all apps, I decided to dedicate a separate blog entry to them because they are such an important part of today’s society.

You cannot go anywhere in China without a health code (健康码) and/or travel code (通行码). I got both while I was still in quarantine but in a convoluted way that I’ll explain below and there are probably easier ways to get them that I’ll point out here as well. Also note that because my Alipay app is linked to my old passport (see the Simplifying your life with Chinese Apps blog entry) things are more difficult than they should be.

Before I go into details, I found that it is critical to have a mainland China phone number. I tried and failed to register these codes on my US phone number. The system simply would not accept them.

Everywhere you go, restaurants, hotels, work, subway stations, etc. folk are asking you for your health code. Or better, they should be asking for it, but my experience was that folks in Shanghai were much less strict in checking them than the folks in Beijing. In Beijing your health code and temperature are checked whenever you enter the subway, a hotel, a mall, a restaurant, etc. There is no escaping.

Health codes are issued by region or city, and each region has different requirements and uses different apps or mini apps to track them. For the Shanghai health code, I was told to go into my Alipay app, select Shanghai and then based on my phone number it showed me my health code. Interestingly, when I was still in quarantine my Shanghai health code was already green. Health codes can be green, yellow, and red. Green obviously means you are ok, yellow means that you have to self-quarantine and red presumably means you have to go to a hospital and seek help immediately.

My Shanghai healthcode from the Ali app. The QR code is intentionally pixilated.

For Beijing I had to get a new health code and I was told again to go into the Ali app’s health mini app and select Beijing and that I would be all set. That turned out not to be the case. The Beijing health code app apparently also requires my passport number and because Alipay is keyed to my old passport it couldn’t locate me. Instead, I went into the WeChat app, installed the Beijing Health Kit mini app and I was able to get the health code there after I entered my passport and phone number.

WeChat’s Beijing Health Kit mini app that shows my Beijing health code.

The Beijing Health Kit has a convenient English option for foreigners. This is especially useful because occasionally alerts pop up. Right now, China is very worried about a COVID19 outbreak in Guangzhou, a city far away in southern china. Yesterday morning, while walking to the subway and looking up my green health code, I had to reauthenticate myself in the Beijing Health Kit app after which I had to attest that I had not been in Guangzhou or its province for the last 14-days. Once I did that, I got my green health code.

Apart from showing your health code to get into a place, I’ve also run once into a scenario where I had to scan a QR with the health app before I was allowed to go in. From the terms you agree to, it sounds that this tracks what, in this case, restaurant you’ve actually visited. It isn’t clear to me when to do this and when not. Most places just care that your code is green.

Besides a health code, there is also a travel code. This is administered by the central government instead of the local government. Curiously, I haven’t had to show my travel code while travelling on the train from Shanghai to Beijing. I’ve only had to show it when I checked into my Shanghai and Beijing hotel.

The way I obtained my travel code was by turning on the COVID tracking on my iPhone. I was curious whether this feature was supported in China, and I figured, why not try it? It worked but it pointed me to a companion app on the Chinese Apple app store that I also had to install. That app asked me for my Chinese phone number and passport number, queried its database and turned yellow. That didn’t surprise me because I tried this all out when I was still in quarantine. The day I was released from quarantine it turned green. 

My travel code when I installed it during quarantine.
My travel code just before I was released from quarantine.

It is unclear to me how much of the Apple/Google technology of continuously exchanging anonymous ID’s is incorporated in the China travel code app and whether the Chinese government uses that together with its app data to correlate the two. No doubt folks are already tracked based on their cell phone location, which happens pretty much everywhere in the world, but this feature could add a whole new level of finer-grained correlation.

The whole health/travel code framework is an interesting microcosm of how the Chinese society works. First of all, it shows how powerful local governments are with respect to the national government. The local governments put their own tracking mechanisms in place with their own registration requirements despite the fact that the national government already has a global system. As a user, it feels like the two could easily be combined but they are not. Second, the various folks I’ve talked to all assume that the tracking system will continue to stay after the COVID19 outbreak is over and they are ok with that. Obviously, they don’t have much choice in the matter, but it doesn’t seem to bother folks either. This is a very different attitude compared to my home state Texas, where we still haven’t even accepted voluntary anonymous tracking that is so commonplace in Washington and California.

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