TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Wang Yu, hailed by the United States as an “international brave woman,” has been arrested, jailed, and harassed by the Chinese Communist Party for her work as an activist, Uyghur scholar, and human rights lawyer for Falun Gong practitioners. This year, her movement in her home country was also restricted by a color-coded app on her phone that was supposed to protect people from COVID-19.
As the country has struggled to contain the novel coronavirus, health codes have become ubiquitous in China, pushing the public to a breaking point where protests erupted late last month. The government announced last week that it would stop using the national health code, but provinces and cities have their own versions, which are more dominant. In Beijing last week, restaurants, offices, hotels and gyms still required local codes to enter.
Even after the lockdown ends, some dissidents and activists predict the health code will remain in some form.
Drawing on telecom network data and PCR test results, the health code is relatively simple. Each person is assigned a QR code on their phone that toggles between green, yellow, or red, depending on whether they are in the same location as someone who tested positive for COVID-19 (yellow), or if they Whether you have tested positive (red). Only people with a green code can live a normal daily life.
However, Wang’s experience shows that these codes can be another tool of social control in China.
In March, she traveled to the city of Datong, an industrial coal mining center in northern China, to provide consulting services. While largely barred from practicing law in China, she said she still advises on human rights cases as a “citizen’s advocate”.
The trip is about 215 miles (346 kilometers) west of Beijing and requires downloading a separate local health code. While most people have two codes, one for the country and one for the city or province they live in, people who travel need another code from the place they are visiting. Without it, they cannot enter malls, restaurants, or even book hotels.
On the second day of arriving in Datong, Ms. Wang said that her local code had turned yellow, which meant she had to be quarantined in a hotel.
“Why did it turn yellow all of a sudden?” she asked. “I don’t have a cough or any symptoms.”
Wang wants to go home before being quarantined, which could last several weeks. She bought a train ticket. After laying out her case for hours, submitting three negative PCR tests and her temperature, she said the administration official on the phone backed off. “Why don’t I change your password to green?” they offer.
Ten minutes later, the health code turned green, and the epidemic prevention staff at the station asked Wang to leave Datong.
“In a way, it became an electronic handcuff,” said Wang Quanzhang, another human rights lawyer not related to Wang Yu. Another passenger had similar travel problems when flying from Wuhan to Beijing in January, he said.
Wang Quanzhang said he finally resolved the issue after calling a local government hotline in Wuhan, complaining to airport staff and tweeting.
Meanwhile, in August, two months before the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Yu said her Beijing health code was no longer functional despite her negative COVID test. Sometimes, it turns red or gets stuck in a popup. At a time when some places in Beijing even required a green health code to enter the park, Ms. Wang decided to leave the capital for her parents’ home in Inner Mongolia. She said she had been waiting for the political meeting to end, thinking the app issue might be an attempt to keep her away. Her repeated calls to the Beijing government hotline brought her code back to normal, and it turned green again in late November.
Beijing police and the Beijing Municipal Health Commission did not respond to faxed requests for comment on Wang’s case.
“The strongest feeling was that I was not free,” she said.
Contact the Associated Press’ Global Investigative Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/