Government officials in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou have proposed adapting the city’s anti-pandemic health code system for long-term use, pushing far beyond parameters used to assess individual health risks during the country’s lockdown period and spurring deeper concern about user privacy.

Why it matters: During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, rapid implementation of local “health code systems” throughout China raised questions about the future of health surveillance.

  • Instead of scoring users with a single color—green, yellow, or red—the proposed health code would provide a sliding-scale numerical score, based on many more data points including exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and sleeping habits.
  • Diagrams within the announcement suggest a city-wide ranking system that will also apply to companies and organizations.
  • Though a valuable tool, the opacity of the health code has been a point of contention. Color grades dictated users’ daily life, but little clarity was offered on inputs driving the result.

Read more: CHINA VOICES | How Alibaba built China’s health code

A diagram from the Healthy Hangzhou website depicting the new Hangzhou health code system as it would be used by enterprises, translated from Chinese. (Image credit: TechNode/Shaun Ee)

Details: The proposal (in Chinese) comes from Hangzhou Health Commissioner, Sun Yongrong, who met with other officials on Friday to discuss “deepening” the use of health codes. The new sliding-scale system is still very much in the early stages, but reinforces concerns that the health code isn’t simply going to go away.

  • Netizens largely denounced news that the health code could be further expanded. One post on microblogging platform Weibo from a Hangzhou news account attracted thousands of comments.
  • “Who gave you the right to access users’ private data? Medical data is absolutely one’s private business, and you actually want to take it and compare, for what, in preparation to discriminate against sick people?” a user going by “Suyin Hulü” commented on the post, attracting 15,000 likes.
Replies to the “Our Favorite Hangzhou” account’s Weibo post about the new health code, critiquing the idea for invasion of privacy and encouraging discrimination, taken on May 25, 2020 (Image credit: TechNode).

Context: Health surveillance isn’t the only field where China is thinking about greater use of citizen data. Across the board, the central government and smaller regions have both been pushing the use of big data.

  • The press release gives a nod to Hangzhou City Brain, a project led by Alibaba that aimed originally to improve traffic flow and has since expanded its scope.
  • At the national level, China has also been pushing a national integrated platform (in Chinese) that would include greater integration of data between regional governments. It is unclear how a regional health code system like this might interface with a national-level platform.
  • Cities and provinces have been granted wide autonomy to experiment with their own health code systems, and Hangzhou, home to Alibaba, has been at the front of the line. It was the first to launch such a system in February, making it worth watching for future direction.

Bottom Line: So far, the health code has been epidemic-focused, mainly taking data such as travel habits and clinical symptoms. Expanding it beyond that would be a huge enterprise, and the proposal is not clear on how Hangzhou will begin the massive project of collecting the data.

Shaun Ee

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...