As the one-year anniversary of the lifting of China’s “zero-COVID” policy approaches, residents in many provinces in China have been dismayed and alarmed by the apparent return of mobile phone app-based health codes. Screenshots shared on social media show the reappearance of health codes in Guangxi, Guangzhou, Hebei, Hubei, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Tianjin, Zhejiang, and other locations. The hashtag “#Green Health Codes Reappear in Sichuan, Guangdong” (#四川广东重现绿码, Sìchuān Guǎngdōng chóngxiàn lǜmǎ) has been trending on Weibo, with many Weibo users expressing fears that health codes, itinerary codes, mandatory COVID testing, and other features of China’s now-defunct “zero-COVID” policy could make a comeback.
RFA’s Gu Ting reported that a news article probing the return of the health code app has been censored online:
Chinese censors have deleted a news report investigating claims that local governments had brought back a hated disease-tracking app that was used during the “zero-COVID” era to confine people to their homes, amid an ongoing wave of respiratory infections across the country, according to local media reports and residents.
The Dec. 1 Top News article cited social media posts across China as saying that local governments in Sichuan and Guangdong had both brought the app back online after retiring it following the lifting of three years of harsh COVID restrictions in December 2022, with users posting screenshots of their “green” health code from the app.
While the article remained visible in syndicated form on Sohu.com’s mobile website on Monday, it had disappeared from the Top News website.
Guangzhou officials told the news service that some aspects of the app had never been retired, but that the app’s ability to impose travel restrictions on individuals had been shut down in February and never reactivated. [Source]
Fueling the concern about health codes is the fact that China is currently experiencing a resurgence of seasonal illnesses such as mycoplasma pneumoniae (“walking pneumonia”), influenza, RSV, the common cold, and COVID. Many of the ill are children who spent their formative years under “zero-COVID” lockdowns, during which they were not exposed to the usual seasonal illnesses. Amid reports of crowded pediatric hospitals, local governments are discouraging patients from going to hospitals for minor colds and flu, and recommending that they go to local fever clinics instead.
A recent post from the NetEase account 清晖有墨 (Qīnghuī yǒu mò) presents a compilation of social media reactions to the mysterious reappearance of health codes. In addition to screenshots of local health code apps and green QR codes, the post includes various social media comments expressing surprise, alarm, anxiety, and even flashbacks to the traumatic lockdowns during the three years from 2020-2022:
Some internet users likened [the return of health codes] to the kind of scary story you might whisper late at night in a college dorm:
An internet user in Hebei discovered this health code last night:
An internet user from Shaanxi discovered last night that their health code had reappeared:
Guangxi’s health code has also resurfaced:
[…] Internet users in Henan, on the other hand, rejoiced that their health codes still appear to be offline, and have not yet been restored.
Internet users had a whole lot of questions:
Some internet users claimed they were terrified:
[…] Some people said they felt like there’d been a glitch in time:
[…] Some cautioned that a single government directive could reinstate COVID controls, and that the present situation was just a temporary hiatus.
An essay from the WeChat public account 老萧杂说 (Lǎo Xiāo záshuō), “Everyone Raise Your Hands to Prevent the Health Code From Making a Comeback,” urges members of the public to vociferously object to reviving the much-hated health code:
Many people have suddenly discovered that the health code never disappeared from their mobile phones. It is also rumored that some provinces’ health codes are starting to go “back online.”
While this news has yet to be confirmed, there is no smoke without fire.
[…] But at least one thing seems certain: various local health codes did not go completely offline, were not swept from the historical stage, in the same way that “itinerary codes” were. Rather, health code apps seem to have simply been in a state of dormant slumber—hibernating, but still intact.
[…] The health code was once deeply ingrained in our lives, carrying out indiscriminate, large-scale, continuous collection and monitoring of everyone’s personal data. The tradeoff that made this possible was the curtailment of individual rights.
[…] The health code is a traumatic part of the public memory. The sheer anxiety it induced has shaped our lived experience, and will undoubtedly leave a profound imprint upon our collective memory.
And so we must ask: since the health code’s “mission” was completed long ago, why hasn’t it been taken offline, and why hasn’t the relevant data been completely deleted?
[…] I am certain there is no shortage of people who have been tempted to make a few tweaks to the health code and adapt it to other purposes and scenarios. After all, remember how obedient and submissive we all were? Why would the powers-that-be want to toss aside such a handy little tool?
[…] When the authorities pin their hopes on a set data model to control and govern society, and apply blandly uniform standards that restrict the diversity of our civilization and our whole social ecosystem, that is not modernized governance.
[…] Unless health code functionality is completely disabled and all its data deleted, it is bound to rear its ugly head again, ripping open the scars of remembered public trauma.
Everyone raise your hands to prevent the health code from making a comeback! [Chinese]