2.1. Macro and micro movement tracing tools
Mobile phone tracking is at the heart of China’s approach to Epidemic Prevention and Control (EPC). At the macro level, tracking has helped to monitor and visualize large-scale population movement. It has also enabled screening and monitoring of high-risk groups. Such tools have been developed either by telecom providers tracking registered phone numbers or by private companies who drew on data collected through multifunctional apps (including online payment, satellite localization, etc.). By mid-February, 40 percent of all Covid-19-related data harvesting was directed towards visualization and monitoring efforts to analyze the spread of the virus, according the China Academy of Telecommunication Planning Research (CAICT), an institution affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).2
Mobile tracking data was among the inputs used to develop QR-code health apps for individual use, which became central to China’s ability to lift quarantine restrictions. Co-operation between tech firms and local authorities played a major role: Alibaba assembled a team of engineers the day after Hangzhou – the internet giant’s home city – went into lockdown on February 3rd. Working with Hangzhou city government, Alibaba conducted the first public trials of the QR “Health Code” (健康码) just three days later. Within a week, the Hangzhou government began rolling out the QR “Health Code” (健康码) onto phones city-wide. The QR code was adopted by the rest of Zhejiang province, the nearby metropolis of Shanghai, and the western powerhouse province of Sichuan on February 12th.
However, the Hangzhou city hotline received more than 50,000 complaints within the first week about inexplicable QR results, and several cities recorded QR app crashes in the following weeks. Alibaba and various project partners have subsequently made similar versions of the “Health Code” available in over 200 Chinese cities and on multiple platforms. The app is currently used by almost all of China’s 900 million internet users.3
At least 100 similar QR-based health assessment apps have been launched by other developers apart from Alibaba. Many provinces introduced regional health codes,4 and private companies started offering similar products, for instance the “Daily Health Check-in”, a new feature in DingTalk (Alibaba’s company communication platform), and the “Study Resumption Code” by Tencent, started in the southern province of Guizhou. China’s three telecom providers (China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom) jointly launched the “Information Big Data Itinerary Pass” (通信大数据行程卡) on February 29th, pooling data on China’s 1.6 billion registered phone numbers and the geographic movement of their customers.
However, these new QR apps lack mutual recognition standards and interoperability features, which undermines their usefulness. This has caused confusion and even tensions at provincial borders: citizens were not allowed to cross into other administrative districts when they were not using the same app.5 Some provinces have started signing cooperation agreements on joint health code recognition, e.g., between Zhejiang, Hainan, Hubei, Sichuan and Hubei.6 This fragmentation of applications is problematic because, according to studies, effective use of tracing apps for containment requires a relatively high amount of the overall population with smartphones to run the same app, or apps that collect and process data based on the same standards (see Box 1).7
How QR health codes work
At the core of most apps are algorithms that gauge the probability of an individual having the virus, based on the phone owner’s travel history over the previous 14 days, geographic location and personal identification. User-submitted information can include contact with an infected person and a self-assessment of their health status. These individualized digital health assessment certificates are stored in QR codes. When scanned, these return one of three results. Green for “allowed to move freely,” orange for “recommended for seven-day quarantine,” or red for “recommended for 14-day quarantine”. Most public transport, supermarkets, and housing complexes now request individuals to show a QR code instead of the previously issued paper certificates.8 Most QR apps are designed to produce dynamic codes that once scanned retrieve individual information from a central database. Information in static QR codes, in contrast, is permanently built into the code.
2.2 Recognition and identification technologies
Surveillance tech has advanced significantly in response to the needs of emergency management. In the early stage, Chinese experts had called the recognition and identification infrastructure of smart cities almost “useless”.9 For example, after the government mandated facemasks, facial recognition technology (FRT) proved able to recognize only 50 percent of masked faces. However, after engineers trained the AI recognition systems, using, amongst others, a police identification database of some 1.2 billion people,10 individuals wearing facemasks could be recognized with accuracies of above 90 percent.11 Additionally, Hanwang, MegVii, and other private companies have now added temperature sensors to their facial recognition devices that – after individual identification – measure individuals’ temperature with an error rate of ±0.3° Celsius.
Infrared identification solutions have been developed for commercial use as an alternative to facial recognition systems. Dilusense, a Beijing based FRT company with cameras in multiple regions, including the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and cities in Zhejiang province, launched the “body temperature detection guard” (体温检测门卫机). It is a gate-like machine for use at entry and exit points to buildings, e.g., housing complexes. People’s body temperatures are taken with infrared thermal imaging and announced by a voice system. A summary is sent to the company.12 Dilusense developed its technologies partly by supplying the Public Security Bureau of Yiwu County in the Xinjiang region,13 for surveillance of the Muslim Uighur population.
Dilusense also provided its facial recognition infrastructure to the city of Wenzhou to enforce measures that required every household to appoint one family member who was allowed on shopping trips every two days.14 Recognition and identification technologies beyond facial recognition have also been vital to China’s epidemic prevention control. Drone maker DJI, for example, has provided the city of Shenzhen and 1,000 counties with disinfectant-spraying drones.15
2.3 Digital health sector apps for research, consultation and resource management
Due to recent digitalization efforts, China’s health sector has been well prepared to use data-driven tools. A national drive led since 2018 by the State Council and the National Health Commission has pushed ahead the digitalization of information channels. These include medical records, lab evaluations, and image archiving, areas where individual data and diagnostic tools overlap. This initiative has stimulated the use of big data and AI to implement platform-based early warning systems, disease monitoring, and resource management systems. Areas to benefit include research and development (R&D) in public health and medicine.
For instance, a prediction model developed by PingAn Technology is helping official health care bodies in the cities of Chongqing and Shenzhen to predict outbreaks with accuracy rates of more than 90 percent.16 The National Supercomputing Center in Shenzhen, in collaboration with companies like Sensetime, provides high-performance computing support to researchers conducting large-scale screening of potential drugs, and working on predicting virus mutations. Similar efforts have already succeeded in drastically reducing the time needed to evaluate CT scans or analyze the genetic RNA structure of SARS-CoV-2.
Online platforms have been an essential support for many medical institutions to develop efficient responses to Covid-19-related challenges. Government data from MIIT shows more than 190 public medical institutions and nearly 100 corporate internet hospitals across the country currently provide free online consultations that partially alleviate the pressure on conventional public hospitals. Good Doctor Online, Chunyu Doctor, Ping An Good Doctor, and other enterprises have pooled the resources of over 10,000 medical experts in the fields of respiratory, infectious diseases and internal medicine to provide free consultations for patients.17 These platforms have also helped improve resource management; for instance, “Huoshaoyun Health Management Platform” (火烧云健康管理平台) now provides the Fujian local government with a database of 60,000 employees from 4,500 enterprises in the health sector to coordinate the deployment of resources and to relieve hospital staff.
2.4. Social credit system has been used to enforce compliance
Digital tools have played an important role in monitoring compliance and supporting extensive analog EPC measures. To enforce lockdown measures, travel bans, centralized quarantine, and home isolation as well as strict hygiene requirements for employers and building managers, the government has been able to make use of the Social Credit System. The system is a framework of interconnected databases and rating mechanisms that tracks compliance with laws and regulations – and a key project of the government to use digitization and pooling of data sources for social governance. Serious offenders are blacklisted and face coordinated punishments and restrictions across government departments.
To boost compliance with pandemic containment regulations, people and companies who hid infections, broke mandatory quarantine and other preventive measures found themselves blacklisted and sanctioned.18 At the same time, to avoid excessive burdens for individuals and companies suffering income losses due to the pandemic, the government offered temporary exemptions from sanctions, when they failed to repay debts or pay social insurance fees.19