As China reopened cities following the Covid-19 epidemic, it relied on “health code” digital systems that divide people into green, yellow, and red based on little understood risk algorithms. Now, as the country moves toward normalcy, local authorities continue to turn the surveillance system off and then on again.

Health code has mostly disappeared in Shanghai and nearby cities. Even Hangzhou, where the system was first deployed, has largely pulled the plug on the labor-intensive network of checkpoints associated with the system.

Meanwhile, other cities are ramping up code use to head off a possible second wave, including some that largely ignored digital quarantine during the initial rollout. 

China offers the world a preview of what writer Tomas Pueyo called the “dance” with Covid-19 that will likely define post-lockdown life until a vaccine is developed. While shops and restaurants have been open across China for weeks, the continuing threat of an outbreak is driving restrictions to ebb and flow.

Shanghai drops codes

The system always varied between places—rather than a nationwide system, the health code is a patchwork of local systems. As China began re-opening, it was common to show one’s code a dozen times per day across the country—entering a market, restaurant, office building, public transport, or returning home all required displaying one’s QR code in many cities.

Shanghai’s implementation of the system was relatively lax. Even at the peak, apartment complexes inhabited by TechNode correspondents checked health codes only once or twice per resident, afterward treating them as non-risks. The system also issued codes without an initial survey of symptoms and travel history, unlike other cities. However, Shanghai office buildings, museums, and bookstores rigorously enforced the system for a few weeks.

As life returns to normal, TechNode correspondents in Shanghai have gone weeks without displaying their health QR code. Eliza Gkritsi has not used her health QR code once since returning from South Korea and Greece on March 22, shortly before China closed its borders to non-citizens. TechNode correspondents and sources have even entered the city by train without passing any kind of check.

But while most Shanghai residents have stopped using their codes, students will begin using new back-to-school codes as schools resume in-person classes. 

There are other exceptions, even in relaxed Shanghai: some office buildings are still checking, but not all. David Cohen was asked for his code when trying to use the bathroom at a co-working space.

health code office building Tencent Shanghai Covid-19 coronavirus China tech Alibaba
People scan their health QR codes to enter an office building in Shanghai on April 29, 2020. (Image credit: TechNode/Eliza Gkritsi)

Checkpoints are still in place at residential and office compounds, as well as public transport, with varying enforcement of temperature and identity checks. Some of these systems require a one-time registration on paper or digital forms. Smaller residential checkpoints are frequently left unattended, especially late at night. Even contactless delivery protocols have softened, with many compounds now allowing delivery drivers to enter.

Hangzhou, a health code pioneer and enthusiastic adopter, has also largely abandoned checks. Unlike Shanghai, the city closely monitors train stations. When a TechNode reporter visited the weekend of April 17, non-nationals were asked to display both their health code and mobile phone carrier-generated travel itineraries, as well as filling out paper forms. Visiting Suzhou, TecNode contributor Dev Lewis observed travelers with Hubei ID cards treated to the same extra attention. However, once past this check, the code was no longer used at apartment compounds or shops.

In Xi’an, one of the most rigorous enforcers of health code, graduate student Liu Weiqi observed the beginnings of relaxation as restaurants resumed outdoor service without any checks.

Health code strikes back

In the last week, TechNode sources in several cities described sudden ramp ups in digital controls and checkpoints, presumably in response to recent increases in case numbers.

In Guangzhou, QR codes never really fell out of use, two residents told TechNode. Public transport stopped checking codes, but they remained widely used in supermarkets, restaurants, office, and residential buildings. But on April 27 public transport checks were suddenly renewed following reports of local cases.

In the smaller city of Yantai, Shandong, TechNode Russia editor Lavrenity Klimov encountered checks at supermarkets and home for only about two to three weeks before the system fell out of use. But on April 28, checkpoints suddenly returned, with shops and residential compounds demanding the QR codes. However, Klimov said, when he had trouble registering for the code without local ID the guards agreed to let him pass.

Health codes reportedly remain essential for residents of Hubei, the province at the center of the epidemic, to leave the cities in which they were quarantined for months.

Meanwhile, the capital continues to enforce strict controls, including mandatory two-week isolation for anyone arriving from other parts of the country, although the health code takes a back seat to temperature checks and paper passes. The city of Harbin, China’s far north has also reportedly intensified controls following new cases associated with Chinese nationals returning from Russia.

Off again, on again

It’s not clear how much of a role digital systems played in allowing China to end its lockdowns safely—they were coupled with extraordinarily strict limits on movement, widespread testing, and in-person surveillance. Even the most digital systems relied on blanketing cities with guards to check the codes. This expensive—and intrusive—approach seems to fade quickly when the virus is under control.

But despite strict quarantine policies that have forbidden all non-citizens to enter the country and place the few remaining travelers in 14-day isolation, Chinese provinces continue to report new cases of the virus.

With the pandemic predicted by experts to last for months or over a year, health code is likely to come and go as local governments play whack-a-mole with the disease.

David Cohen is a former acting editor in chief at TechNode. Since 2010, he has covered China as a writer and editor at outlets including the Diplomat, the Jamestown Foundation, and China Policy. He’s...

Eliza was TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter until July 2021, when she moved to CoinDesk to cover crypto in Asia. Get in touch with her via email or Twitter.