With China easing lockdown restrictions, some students’ long breaks from in-person classes are finally coming to an end. But as they return to school, they will need to prove their health to some high-tech security guards. China’s tech companies have been eager to position themselves as health surveillance providers, using QR codes, “smart gates,” and even smart payment devices to mass screen students while minimizing unnecessary human contact. Some health code systems (in Chinese) even claim to text parents when their children enter and leave school.

With a health QR code called Fuxuema (Back to School Code) and existing smart campus systems, Tencent is the leader of the pack. Other companies like the state-owned China Mobile, however, are also jumping in. 

These companies are eyeing a sizable market. Even though China has staggered the reopening of schools by province and by grade level, in Zhejiang alone, nearly a million students returned to school on April 12. On Monday, 1.87 million students returned to school in Guangdong (in Chinese). Guangdong also happens to be one of the provinces where Fuxuema has been most popular: in just the city of Zhanjiang, 4,000 schools (in Chinese) have adopted it under local education bureau rules.

Many other students will be returning to school in the weeks to come. And as has happened elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic will let companies rebrand their products as anti-epidemic solutions, potentially speeding up the adoption of new technologies on Chinese campuses.

Health code paves the way

In late March, as some middle and high school students prepared to return to school, Tencent released Fuxuema (in Chinese), a health QR code mini program directly accessible through WeChat. Since then, Tencent has also announced a more comprehensive set of tools for colleges and universities under the banner of a “Back-to-School Solutions Package” (in Chinese), positioning itself to expand its “smart campus” business.

During its initial rollout, Fuxuema was meant to ease the way for final-year junior high and final-year senior high students (equivalent to the US ninth and twelfth grade) as they returned to prepare for the national zhongkao and gaokao exams.

According to the Economic Daily (in Chinese), Fuxuema asks students and teachers health questions using a WeChat mini-app, and uses these to issue a color code. Conveniently for students, they don’t have to download a new app. Conveniently for Tencent, this also requires schools and local education bureaus to set up enterprise WeChat accounts if they want to retrieve compiled statistics on their students.

While the exact scale of uptake is unclear, there have been news reports of some schools using Fuxuema in provinces as far afield as Hainan, Sichuan, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen (in Chinese). One news outlet has even published (in Chinese) a list of invitation letters that Tencent has received from district- and county-level education departments in Guangdong, Jiangsu, Hubei, Guizhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, and other provinces.

But as other students prepare to return to campus, Tencent has looked beyond Fuxuema, seeking to integrate its anti-epidemic measures into a more comprehensive set of offerings under its Tencent Smart Campus (website in Chinese) brand.

In mid-April, Tencent launched a “Comprehensive Back-to-School Solutions Package” targeted at universities and colleges, some of which are opening up in a staggered fashion.

Like their younger counterparts, returning college students (as well as teachers and employees) must use a version of the Fuxuema app to gain authorization to enter the school gates and other on-campus buildings, according to the official Tencent Education account (in Chinese). There are also other functions that should prove useful to administrators, such as the ability to call up heat maps of the campus and assess high-traffic areas that could pose infection risks.

Tencent Smart Campus provides a real-time heat map for administrators to visualize and monitor where people are. (Image credit: Tencent Education Official Account)

Many of the functions bundled into this solutions package seem intended to have staying power beyond the pandemic. For example, Tencent touts an online career portal meant to help soon-to-be grads struggling with the lack of recruiters physically on campus, and an online counseling service meant to support students through their current difficulties.

Its own products aside, Tencent has also collaborated with a company called Anzhi Education to get more facial recognition into schools. In its own words, Anzhi Education (in Chinese) provides security and information services such as “Anzhi Campus” for elementary and middle schools, working with 3,000 schools in provinces like Hunan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangdong. The two companies offer a contactless payment system that incorporates facial recognition and temperature monitoring, which Anzhi is donating (in Chinese) to 200 schools in Hunan province in a contribution equivalent to RMB 40 million (about $8 million).

These tools may be especially valuable in the pandemic, but their use does not stop there, and custom add-ons for the pandemic like Fuxuema might help them gain traction.

Automating security with smart gates

Also growing in popularity are temperature-monitoring solutions that accelerate the screening of students as they enter and leave campus.

China Mobile, a state-owned telecommunications company, appears to be the most active player in these solutions. In Chongqing, its subsidiary boasts (in Chinese) that it has provided an “intelligent anti-epidemic temperature management system” to nearly 200 schools. In Nanchang, it is partnering (in Chinese) with the Nanchang Public Security Bureau and other partners to develop an integrated face recognition and temperature-monitoring solution it calls “Nanchang Cloud Eye.”

Some of these temperature-monitoring solutions bill themselves as “smart gates” that automate screening with facial recognition technology. For example, Xinxiang Mobile, a branch of China Mobile’s Henan subsidiary, reportedly has (in Chinese) smart gates at Huixian County No. 2 Senior High School that allow automatic measurement and reporting of temperatures as students enter and leave school gates, even sending text notifications to students and their parents as they do so. 

Tencent also has its own smart gate solution, which according to an article about a Chengdu school (in Chinese), only grants entry after students pass a face scan and temperature check, akin to a subway gate. 

But most systems, such as those deployed in Shandong (in Chinese) and in Chongqing (in Chinese), appear to be fairly conventional screening devices.

China Mobile deployments boast instead of 5G technology, with the Chongqing subsidiary, for example, claiming that 5G’s low latency and high data speed allow for immediate data transfer to the device’s backend.

Though interrupted by Covid-19, national deployment of 5G base stations remains a priority for China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The country has struggled to find a “killer application,” and China Mobile’s move toward these temperature-screening devices may be yet another attempt. Like Tencent’s Smart Campus solution, these “smart gates” provide China Mobile a way to keep pushing its core products out, keeping it relevant in a time of crisis.

A cartoon from Chinese state media suggesting how 5G might help fight Covid-19. (Image credit: Cai Meng/China Daily)

Pandemic solutions in a post-pandemic world

As schools and universities scrabble to resume normal operations, attentive companies will make themselves valuable by having just the right tool at the ready, like Tencent with Fuxuema or China Mobile with smart gates. Done well, their response to the pandemic could be a way for them to get their foot in the door and sell students and institutions on a bigger deal.

But elsewhere in China’s edtech sector, crises at companies like GSX and TAL are a good reminder that even if there’s a compelling story, some level of caution is always due.

Right now, the dust has yet to settle, and the same chaos that creates opportunities for new products also makes it hard to tell how many people are really using them. Some of them will have a real value proposition, but others may just be fads. Only time will tell which companies have really done their homework—and which were just muddling through.

Shaun Ee is a Yenching Scholar working at the intersection of geopolitics, tech, and national security. Before moving to Beijing, he was assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft...