Human rights activist in Beijing immobilized by COVID-19 app

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Wang Yu, hailed as an International Woman of Courage by the US, has already been arrested, jailed and harassed by the Chinese Communist Party for her work as a human rights lawyer representing activists, Uyghur scholars and Falun Gong practitioners. This year, her movements in her home country have also been restricted by a color-coded app on her phone that is supposed to protect people from COVID-19.

The health codes have become ubiquitous in China as the country has struggled to contain the new coronavirus, pushing the public to a breaking point that erupted in protests late last month. The government announced last week that it would discontinue the national health code, but cities and counties have their own versions, which have been more dominant. Last week in Beijing, restaurants, offices, hotels and gyms were still required to enter local codes.

Even after the lockdowns end, some dissidents and activists predict that the health codes will remain in place in one form or another.

Based on telecommunications network data and PCR test results, health codes are relatively straightforward. Everyone is assigned a QR code on their phone that alternates between green, yellow or red depending on factors such as whether they have been in the same place as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 (yellow) or whether they have tested positive themselves (red). Only people with green codes can go about their normal daily lives.

However, Wang’s experience shows that the codes can become another tool of social control in China.

In March, she traveled to Datong, an industrial mining center in northern China, to give advice. Although she is largely prevented from working as a lawyer in China, she says she still advises on human rights cases as a ‘citizen’s lawyer’.

Located about 215 miles (346 km) west of Beijing, the trip required downloading a separate local health code. While most people have had two codes, one national and one for the city or state they live in, people who travel need another one for the place they are visiting. Without it, they cannot enter a mall, a restaurant or even book a hotel.

The day after Wang arrived in Datong, she said her local code had turned yellow, meaning she had to quarantine centrally in a hotel.

“How did it suddenly turn yellow?” she asked. “I had no cough or symptoms.”

Wang wanted to go home before going into quarantine, which could have taken a few weeks. She bought a train ticket. After putting her case for hours, submitting three negative PCR tests and her body temperature, she said the government official over the phone relented. “Why don’t I change your code to green?” they offered.

Ten minutes later, the health code turned green and the pandemic prevention officers at the station allowed Wang to leave Datong, she said.

“To some extent it has become an electronic handcuff,” said Wang Quanzhang, another human rights lawyer who is not related to Wang Yu. He said another passenger experienced similar travel problems in January when flying from Wuhan to Beijing.

Wang Quanzhang said he finally resolved the issue after calling a local Wuhan government hotline, complaining to airport staff and posting on Weibo.

Meanwhile, Wang Yu said in August, two months before the 20th Chinese Party Congress, that her Beijing health code had stopped working despite testing negative for COVID. When cornering, it turned red or stuck in a pop-up window. Since places in Beijing then required a green health code to even enter a park, Wang decided to leave the capital and go to her parents’ home in Inner Mongolia. She said she waited out the political rally, thinking app problems might have been designed to keep her away. She continued to call Beijing government hotlines to get her code back to normal, and it turned green again in late November.

Beijing Police and the Beijing Municipal Health Commission have not responded to faxed requests for comment on Wang’s case.

“The strongest feeling is that I have no freedom,” she said.

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