Officials are touting the system as an innovative way to do what virtually no other nation is still trying to do: eradicate all outbreaks of the fast-moving Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Testing tens of millions of people every day is an incredibly expensive campaign with no end in sight.
Chinese university is the scene of a rare coronavirus lockdown protest
Do you remember Tamagotchis? Those digital pocket animals of the 1990s? These codes also require ongoing grooming and feeding, except you’ll need a negative coronavirus test every one to three days to feed this beast.
Also, if your Tamagotchi dies from neglect, you can restart the game. If you screw up your coronavirus code, you won’t be able to enter a store or public building and you might be quarantined.
These QR codes were introduced for contact tracing in the early days of the pandemic, but as many cities roll out continuous testing, they’re becoming a more intrusive part of life. With the devastation of Shanghai’s total lockdown, officials are hoping constant testing will help them catch outbreaks early.
A new term was coined in China’s capital Beijing, tanchuang or “pop-up window” in reference to the app’s pop-up warning when you lose your precious green code status. Those who are “pop-up windows” — the noun doubles as a verb — are locked out of offices, supermarkets, taxis, buses and other public spaces until they can clear their status.
“If you skip a day, you have a problem with pop-up windows,” says Erin Chen, 32, who works in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, where daily coronavirus testing became mandatory this month amid an outbreak.
There are different levels of Tanchuang. If you just missed a coronavirus test, you can fix your situation in just one day by taking a free test at one of the sidewalk booths that are located every few blocks in Beijing.
But if you unknowingly wander through a part of the city designated as a Covid hot zone, you’ll have to stay home until a worker comes to test you and you’re released – which could be days.
“Stay where you are and wait for a notification for coronavirus testing,” the text read. “Thank you for your understanding of this inconvenience.”
The unluckiest souls are considered close contacts of a Covid patient and are assigned to quarantine centers. On Saturday, about 5,000 residents of a Beijing condominium were quarantined for seven days after 26 cases were found in their community, according to state media.
Authorities have released complicated flow charts to try to explain the different routes to Tanchuang. But hot zones are declared retrospectively, making it impossible to guarantee a safe trip no matter how hard you study the maps. The clutter is a feature, not a bug: it’s an incentive for everyone to, well, just stay home.
It prompts an unusual level of reflection before venturing across town for a meet-up or meeting friends – what if the trip results in your Covid code being downgraded?
Shanghai is facing a mental crisis as the Covid lockdown drags on
The Unyielding Rules of Tanchuang have led to strange experiences. A Shanghai executive, Ren Junxia, who was in Beijing as a tourist, found himself with a pop-up window on May 4. Her hotel refused to let her back in, saying it would lock down the entire hotel. She eventually fled to a secluded section of the Great Wall.
“I became a wandering soul with nowhere to go in the imperial capital,” she wrote in an online post that went viral.
Ren’s pop-up disappeared as mysteriously as it came on Day 5, filling her with joy. “My dear Health Code, you are normal!!!”
Beijing residents have reported being shown pop-up windows while crossing the street to buy groceries and even while doing nothing in their homes.
Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities appear to be following the model of Shenzhen, China’s southern high-tech hub, which has managed to stave off further outbreaks by continuously testing its 17.6 million residents after a week-long lockdown in March.
Despite no longer having daily coronavirus cases in Shenzhen, all public spaces must test negative within 72 hours, with some venues setting a shorter 48-hour window. In the evening, long queues meander through the city in front of test centers.
Klaus Zenkel, chairman of the European Union Chamber of Commerce for South China and a resident of Shenzhen, said while wait times are short at some test sites, they could exceed half an hour at others.
“These tests take up a lot of people’s time,” he said.
Soochow Securities in China estimates these tests cost 50 cents to $1.19 per test, meaning spending could reach as much as 1.27 percent of China’s nominal gross domestic product if 48-hour tests are standardized in major cities will.
China’s financial capital Shanghai did not need continuous testing before it went into a traumatic two-month lockdown in March. To start, Shanghai has announced plans for “normalized” citywide coronavirus testing, aiming to have a site within 15 minutes’ walk of anywhere in the city.
The arrival of a digital code protecting access to public life evokes an earlier project, China’s social credit system. The social credit system, begun in 2014, sparked considerable debate over fears it would use “big data” to assess individuals, potentially impacting what they could do and where they could go – leading to a particularly famous episode the television series “Black Mirror.”
Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, said the social credit system has been widely misunderstood and, in practice, has proven to be largely a regulatory mechanism for companies. As for health codes, he said they differ from social credit in their narrow focus on coronavirus health data.
“This is looking at a specific set of your test results and where it appears you are,” Daum said. “The difference is that people imagine that the social credit system analyzes all aspects of your life.”
Still, some residents worry the health regulations may endure as a social gatekeeper.
On Monday, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan wrote on social media platform Weibo that she was concerned by Beijing’s announcement that public buses would require health code check-ins.
“It also means that the health code can stay with us throughout our lives and control our freedom of movement at all times,” she wrote. “I am very concerned about this because such measures have great hidden dangers.”
Authorities have said the continuous testing program is temporary, but they have not provided a timeline for when coronavirus vaccination levels will be high enough for controls to be lifted. While many of the test sites in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are pop-up tents, others are more permanent structures, suggesting residents may be away for long periods.
A Shanghai resident, a 24-year-old woman surnamed Liu, who declined to give her full name to discuss local regulations, said a robust test booth had been set up just outside her apartment complex, equipped with a air conditioning is equipped.
“Going forward, that 48-hour PCR requirement basically means you have to test every day,” she said. “If you have a loophole, your code turns gray and you have nowhere to go.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.