Beijing Pulls COVID Isolation Tracking Bracelets After Backlash; Hong Kong Rollout Goes Ahead

While many governments elsewhere appear resigned to “sliding into the long pandemic defeat,” those in China continue to fight COVID-19 with an array of weapons including mass testing, smartphone-based health codes, and district-wide lockdowns. The goal of “dynamic zero” case counts is set by the central government, but as is often the case, decisions about how to pursue it are left to authorities down to the most local levels. Those traveling around the country must therefore navigate an unpredictable, opaque, and sometimes arbitrary mosaic of policies and restrictions. Some long-haul truck drivers, for example, have found themselves taped into their cabs for days after running into mandatory local isolation requirements through an unlucky choice of highway exit.

Last week, authorities in Hong Kong announced a new addition to their arsenal: digital tracking bracelets to monitor adherence to isolation requirements. The devices sparked immediate questions about privacy and risks of deterring people from testing or reporting results. Some local authorities in Beijing, meanwhile, suddenly began distributing similar trackers, sometimes in the middle of the night. On top of similar concerns to those voiced in Hong Kong, the absence of any formally announced requirement led to suspicion that the rollout might be driven by corporate profiteering rather than official policy. The backlash brought predictable online censorship, but also the bracelets’ withdrawal. The contrast between sharp reversal in Beijing and Hong Kong’s unshifting course has fueled arguments that the latter’s residents now live under tighter control, in some respects, than their counterparts on the Chinese mainland.

Manya Koetse posted an overview of events in Beijing and the surrounding controversy at What’s On Weibo:

“Last week, I went on a work trip to Guangzhou and before I returned to Beijing I did the nucleic acid tests in time. I also reported my home isolation to authorities and received the antigen tests. In the middle of the night, I then received a notification from my community that they are giving me an electric bracelet to wear,” one Beijing resident writes on Weibo on July 14: “If they need to monitor my health, I’ll cooperate with temperature checks and nucleic acid tests at the door, but I cannot accept this so-called 24-hour electronic monitoring.”

[…] Tech blogger Dahongmao later updated their Weibo story about the bracelets, saying the community staff had come back to retrieve the electronic bracelets on Thursday afternoon because they had received “too many complaints.” News of the wristbands being recalled after too many complaints also became a hashtag on Weibo (#大量投诉质疑后社区回收电子手环#).

[…] On the late afternoon of July 14, the Beijing Municipal Health Commission responded to the online concerns about the electronic wristband, reportedly saying that home isolation is only necessary for people returning to Beijing from inside of China if they are coming from high-risk areas, and that there is no official policy in place regarding the need to wear electronic bracelets. [Source]

CDT Chinese has archived a pair of posts on the proliferation of electronic tagging beyond the criminal justice sphere and discussion of the bracelets’ manufacture and application. Both of these posts are still online at their original locations, but Reuters’ Eduardo Baptista noted widespread censorship of other related content:

This post and others that shared pictures of the bracelets were removed by Thursday afternoon, as well as a related hashtag that had garnered over 30 million views, generating an animated discussion on the platform.

A community worker at Tiantongyuan, Beijing’s northern suburb, confirmed to state-backed news outlet Eastday that the measure was in effect in the neighbourhood, though she called the practice “excessive”.

A Weibo post and a video published on the official account of was removed by Thursday afternoon.

[…] Besides Beijing, several other regions and jurisdictions have introduced bracelets as a COVID control measure, or plan to do so, including Hong Kong, Henan, Inner Mongolia, and Zhejiang, according to Chinese news site Jiemian. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Phoebe Zhang reported this week on other applications of tracking bracelets “to monitor people who have committed offences that are not serious enough to warrant arrest.”

At The New York Times, Amy Qin, John Liu, and Amy Chang Chien cited the bracelet backlash as part of a growing trend of public hostility to tech-enabled privacy violations, albeit one focused more on corporate rather than official activities. The story’s primary focus was an enormous leak of personal data from a Shanghai police database, for which hosting platform Alibaba seems likely bear the brunt of public blame. It also touches on the abuse of health codes to suppress protests by bank depositors in Henan. That standoff later turned violent when protesters were attacked by unidentified men wearing an informal uniform of white shirts.

Chinese artists have staged performances to highlight the ubiquity of surveillance cameras. Privacy activists have filed lawsuits against the collection of facial recognition data. Ordinary citizens and establishment intellectuals alike have pushed back against the abuse of Covid tracking apps by the authorities to curb protests. Internet users have shared tips on how to evade digital monitoring.

As China builds up its vast surveillance and security apparatus, it is running up against growing public unease about the lack of safeguards to prevent the theft or misuse of personal data. The ruling Communist Party is keenly aware of the cost to its credibility of any major security lapses: Last week, it moved systematically to squelch news about what was probably the largest known breach of a Chinese government computer system, involving the personal information of as many as one billion citizens.

[…] China, which has been racing to create one of the world’s toughest data privacy regimes, frequently excoriates companies for mishandling data. But the authorities rarely point fingers at the country’s other top collector of personal information: the government itself.

[…] Now, there are signs that people are growing wary of the government and public institutions, too, as they see how their own data is being used against them. Last month, a nationwide outcry erupted over the apparent abuse of Covid-19 tracking technology by local authorities. [Source]

The Guardian’s Rhoda Kwan, meanwhile, reported last week on the bracelets’ introduction in Hong Kong:

The quarantine bracelets, to be introduced on Friday, will be mandatory for people who have tested positive and are quarantining at home to ensure they do not leave the building during their isolation period.

“We have to make sure that home isolation is more precise while being humane,” Lo Chung-mau, the city’s new health secretary said, announcing the new requirement on Monday. Breaching a mandatory quarantine order in Hong Kong carries a fine of up to HK$25,000 ($3,200) and up to six months in jail.

Hong Kong has previously used two types of bracelets to track people under home quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020: an earlier plastic wristband with a QR code and a later one with a bulky electronic tracker. Lo did not clarify which one would be introduced on Friday.

Under the health codes system, which tracks the movement of people via mobile phones, citizens will be allowed to enter public spaces if the QR code on their account is green. The code turns yellow if people have been in close contact with an infected person, and red if the person has tested positive for the virus. [Source]

AFP’s Xinqi Su relayed further details of Lo’s comments:

The Guardian’s Kwan cited skepticism about the bracelet scheme from University of Hong Kong epidemologist Ben Cowling, who also addressed the announcement on Twitter:

At South China Morning Post, Victor Ting and Oscar Liu reported on privacy and other concerns about the bracelets and other elements of the city’s pandemic control system:

“There have long been questions about the accuracy of those wristbands, such as whether someone could just take them off and hang them at home,” [Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, co-chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases] said. “Would those wristbands be sensitive enough to detect a person leaving their home and going from the 16th floor of a building to the third floor, for example?”

[…] “Someone could easily use their friend’s phone to scan for entry,” [Medical and health services sector lawmaker Dr David] Lam said, adding that there was a possibility that some people would refrain from getting a test for fear of a strict seven-day home isolation, thereby creating more silent carriers in the community.

[…] IT lawmaker Duncan Chiu Tat-kun said the establishment of a central data bank for the “Leave Home Safe” app should address the privacy concerns.

“All user data can be encrypted and transferred to the central data bank. For anti-pandemic purposes, I think keeping the data for 30 days is more than enough before deleting it,” Chiu said.

“We have proposed the central data bank idea several times, and I don’t know whether the government would adopt it this time. It is a technological way to address the privacy issue. In that case, people don’t have to worry about whether their whereabouts are exposed or being monitored.” [Source]

Focusing on the Henan case in his column at South China Morning Post last month, former editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei argued that “China’s Covid-19 health code system is ripe for abuse and must not outlast the pandemic.”

The ubiquitous health QR codes, which people are required to scan before taking public transport or entering public spaces, have proved to be one of the most powerful tools in China’s antivirus arsenal – allowing the authorities to effectively track and control people’s movements to help curb the spread of the virus.

[…] Since the system’s introduction in early 2020, however, there have been consistent concerns that it could be abused for political control or the violation of privacy, as the code also contains a vast trove of other data the authorities have on individuals – including their personal information, travel history, health records, location and recent contacts.

That helps explain the national uproar that began on Monday [June 13] when reports emerged of local authorities in Henan province tampering with the system to bar certain residents from visiting Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. Some of the people had wanted to voice their complaints and demand justice after losing their deposits in a major banking scandal, while others were unhappy about the delayed delivery of residential units.

[…] Such was the uproar at the Henan scandal that even major state media outlets joined in the condemnation in surprisingly strong terms. In a commentary headlined “Tampering with health code is crossing the red line”, China Daily described it as “one of the worst forms of abuse of power” and said those responsible should be punished according to the law if the allegations were found to be true. [Source]

At Bloomberg, Matthew Brooker wrote that the violent turn in the Henan story suggests that “protesters can now demonstrate more freely on the mainland than they can in the former British colony.”

The protest in Zhengzhou by victims of a bank fraud and its violent suppression by unidentified men caused an outcry on Chinese social media and captured the attention of the world’s press. Nowhere will the images have resonated more strongly than in Hong Kong. That’s partly because in the current climate it’s all but impossible to imagine a similar demonstration happening in the former British colony. In one key respect, a provincial city in the Communist mainland can now be considered freer than a global financial center that had Western-style liberties written into its foundational legislation as a special administrative region of China. It’s a sobering measure of how far Hong Kong has fallen.

Consider the banners that the bank protesters held up. “Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government,” read one in English, referring to the province of which Zhengzhou is the capital, in a clear attempt to appeal to an international audience. “No deposits, no human rights,” said another. Displaying such messages in Hong Kong would risk accusations of provoking hatred of the government and colluding with external elements, offenses under the national security law that Beijing imposed on the city two years ago.

The Zhengzhou demonstrators took chances in staging their protest, it is true; but the risk of being battered by plainclothes security personnel hardly compares with the threat of life imprisonment, the maximum sentence under Hong Kong’s security law. Together with Covid social-distancing regulations that currently restrict public gatherings to no more than four people, the law has served to effectively eradicate large-scale expressions of dissent since the sometimes-violent pro-democracy protests that convulsed the city in 2019. [Source]


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