Like most students in China, I had a very long winter vacation. My university shut down completely at the end of January, when Covid-19 lockdowns began, and students were forbidden to return to campus for months.
China has been extra careful about school re-opening. With a massive number of students returning from everywhere in the country and then living collectively like sardines, university campuses could be natural petri dishes for the virus. Hence, the school needed to be sure every returnee is virus-free and guarantee that nobody got infected inside the campus.
Liu Weiqi is a Xi’an-based Ph.D. student in Management Science with a background in law and engineering.
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I wasn’t allowed to return to Xi’an Jiaotong University until May (Chinese), when Shaanxi Province finally approved re-opening. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education demanded (Chinese) “closed management” of the campus — meaning, in theory, that students aren’t allowed to leave the campus once they return.
To meet those objectives, Xi’an Jiaotong University went with the most fashionable thing in Chinese administration: the school’s Network Information Center developed its own health code system (Chinese), naming it the “Internet+ Epidemic Prevention and Control Smart Platform.” Students access it using Wechat and a campus app.
How the health code worked
Together with big tech companies, governments at all levels in China regulated people’s movements with digital systems during the pandemic. A popular tool is the health code system, that uses mini-apps to assign people a color code based on health risk. That code determines where one can go. There are thousands of these systems run by different entities, yet they don’t seem to work together.
Xi’an Jiaotong’s system was first introduced around February to track students stuck off campus. It asked us to fill out a daily health report in Wechat or the campus app, answering questions like “do you have a fever?” or “have you been to high-risk areas?” At the end of April, the university started coding people as red, yellow, or green risks in preparation for re-opening the campus.
Back to school with a new health code
To go back to campus, we needed two weeks’ of daily health reports. Every day, we were asked to report our status including current location, health code color in local systems, travel record, contact tracing history, body temperature, possible symptoms of Covid-19, and more, using Wechat or the campus app. If you forgot to fill it out or made a mistake, you had to resubmit the record for that day in a separate form and then ask the school counselor to approve the modification.
The school is looking for “risk-free records”: where students (and everyone they are in contact with) hold a green code in their local system, show no symptoms, and have not been to any risky regions.
A risk-free report every day for 14 days gets you a campus green code and an invitation back to campus. Yellow code holders were also allowed back in theory, but threatened with 14-day quarantines. In practice, only green code holders returned, although the school helped some students with yellow codes resolve issues to convert them to green. Red code holders were strictly forbidden to return. On the returning day, code color was strictly checked, and a school counselor checked each student’s status to make sure only green code holders returned to school.
Getting around the campus
Once back on campus, students are required to fill out the daily health report twice a day at a given time (between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., and from noon and 5 p.m.) after returning. The campus code turns yellow if one forgets to fill out a report.
But people usually don’t care: though the school said only campus green code holders would be able to move around freely on campus, nobody actually checks the code.
Public places like canteens usually just check temperatures with an infrared thermometer gate; places like the gym sometimes ask for a Xi’an city health code instead. My department created its own half-digital entrance record system, under which I need to register in a mini-program to enter the building, and then write down my information on a notebook hanging on the door of my office.
In short, the campus code is useless inside the campus itself.
Going off campus with a special health code
Closed management is impossible for my university: for one thing, it has four campuses, and plenty of students need to commute among them for different classes. Additionally, many students live off campus, and some students need to leave for job-hunting, internships, or emergencies. So the system makes exceptions with a special “purple code” for students in need to leave and re-enter the campus.
Guards never stopped students from leaving, but in theory you needed a purple code to get back on campus once you left.
It is not easy to get a purple code: first, a student needs to hold a campus green code and their purple code application needs to be approved by their supervisor, school counselor, and the deputy dean of faculty.
Not many people hold a purple code because of the hassle. My undergraduate friends told me that their counselors just don’t want to give them the approval because the bureaucracy is too complex. My own classmates were afraid to apply for one because they were afraid that their supervisors may regard leaving campus as a symbol of being lazy at their studies.
But in practice, people found other ways to get off campus. The guards only need to see (not scan) the purple code to allow students re-entry — making it easy to fake.
So students created alternatives. Some students have developed their own mini-program to generate a purple code, some borrow purple code screenshots from others, some pretend to be a university staff member to avoid scrutiny, while some simply physically climb the campus wall.
Gilding the lily
The university’s efforts to control the virus with its health code system are the definition of tech for tech’s sake: the apps worked, but they didn’t really do anything. Not only is the system’s effectiveness questionable, but rule-breakers and excessive bureaucracy also sharply undermined the technology.
The foundational data of this system is what students write in the daily health report. Unlike government agencies and big tech companies, the school cannot easily acquire information such as students’ locations; hence, the credibility of the reports relies on nothing more than students’ honesty. But students can easily lie on their forms.
As for enforcement, few people continue to take it seriously. Since the code’s color makes no difference once one returns to school, many students have already stopped filling out their daily health reports.
The school has given up checking the purple codes (though they have not officially abandoned the health code system) right now. People now can simply use their campus ID card for entry, which was the pre-epidemic system.
A common sentiment among students is to regard the system as a symbol of bureaucracy, because it assumes college students can’t be trusted. While the staff is free to leave and enter the campus, students cannot even fix their own records without special approval from a school counselor. Once, a counselor even publicly shamed students who failed to submit the daily health report by demanding they handwrite long self-criticism letters in the class chat group.
The system still has some advantages: the school can monitor the situation of students better; it mobilizes plenty of people to work on campus epidemic control; the school’s propaganda about “working as one” (even though the “work” is mostly just filling out a report twice a day) feels more real, and there has been some positive major media coverage. But what it contributes to campus epidemic control is still unclear.
Nationally, the health code system is a must for epidemic control; but a campus version is just gilding the lily. In May, most cities were already accepting (in Chinese) green codes issued by other cities. There was no need for the university to create a separate system in the first place.