By Liza Lin
China's technology titans are deploying health-rating systems to
help authorities track the movement of millions of Chinese who are
preparing to resume work at factories and other businesses, adding
a new and controversial tool in the country's battle to contain the
fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported this week that the
country's cabinet, the State Council, had instructed Alibaba Group
Ltd. affiliate Ant Financial Services Group to explore the
nationwide rollout of a rating app to help governments control
which people can travel into and around the city during the
Alibaba and Ant Financial worked with the government of Hangzhou
to develop a smartphone-based system to classify people into three
categories of exposure to the outbreak -- green, yellow or red --
based on their health conditions and travel history. Gaming and
social-media behemoth Tencent Holdings Ltd. created a similar
program for the southern city of Shenzhen.
Ant Financial said in a social-media post that the national
system could be launched as early as this week. Tencent is also
working with the central government to expand its system
nationwide, the company said.
In Hangzhou, users are prompted to enter their personal
information and current location when first registering. They then
self report their physical condition -- choosing from a list of
options such as a dry cough, fever or asymptomatic -- and are asked
if they have traveled in the last 14 days or come into contact with
suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases in the same period.
The system, operated by the city government through Alibaba's
DingTalk mobile messaging platform, then assigns the person a
color-coded badge. Those marked as green are given the all clear to
roam relatively freely around the city, and are given a QR code to
present at checkpoints such as subways, office buildings, malls and
other crowded public places when moving about. Staff at these
checkpoints will scan or visually check this code and take their
temperatures before they are allowed to pass.
Little has been said about the national system so far, and the
State Council didn't immediately respond to a request for
China's ruling Communist Party is under intense pressure to
restart the country's economy after the outbreak of the
fast-spreading coronavirus -- which has infected more than 72,000
people and killed at least 1,868 -- led the government to extend
the annual Lunar New Year holiday and impose lockdowns on regions
hard-hit by the pathogen. Business in several places has been
brought to a virtual standstill.
In a survey released Monday by the American Chamber of Commerce
in China of 109 manufacturers, 78% of companies said they didn't
have sufficient staff to run a full production line.
In turning to Alibaba and Tencent for help, China's government
is exploiting its close relationships with the country's most
influential tech companies. By working with the companies, the
government can tap computing power and expertise it lacks on its
own. The companies, meanwhile, benefit from a government-mandated
boost to traffic on their platforms.
Both Alibaba and Tencent have said they have no access to users'
health and travel data.
So far, the systems have drawn a mix of praise and scorn.
Hangzhou's government said the scheme has made it easier to restart
work and factory production while still isolating those infected
with the virus. But flaws have led to serious disruptions in the
lives of some residents.
Ma Ce, a Hangzhou-based lawyer, said he applied for permission
to return from vacation to the eastern Chinese city using Ant
Financial's smartphone app.
In the Hangzhou system, people granted green badges can move
around the city with relative freedom by flashing their phones at
checkpoints. Those given yellow badges must isolate themselves for
seven days, while people who come up red are forced to
self-quarantine at home for two weeks.
Yellow and red badges are given to those who might have been
with a confirmed or suspected coronavirus patient, or who recently
traveled to areas severely affected by the outbreak, such as Wuhan,
the central city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
Hangzhou's system relies on users to self-report much of the
information used to determine their status. Mr. Ma said he hadn't
visited highly infected parts of China, nor was he feeling under
the weather. Nevertheless, the system gave him a red badge.
"I have no idea how come I am granted a red card under
circumstances like this," he said.
Alibaba referred questions about the potential for mislabeling
to the Hangzhou government, saying the government was responsible
for the system's core operations. The Hangzhou government didn't
immediately respond to requests for comment.
Since the health-code system was launched in Hangzhou on Feb.
11, the government has issued more than 7.2 million colored tags,
of which more than 6.7 million were green, a Hangzhou official said
at a news conference on Sunday. The day before, the city government
created an appeal process on its own website for those who believe
they have been given the wrong color.
A system that relies on travel restrictions and self-reported
data could fail because the stigma attached to being a carrier
incentivizes people who have been exposed to the virus to lie about
their status, said Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth
Alliance, whose New York-based organization conducts research into
The Hangzhou government called out 16 people for lying on their
health code application in a social-media post earlier this month,
saying it used "big data" to verify the self-reported information.
Everyone in the group would immediately be given red tags, it
By Feb. 14, the number of people found to have been dishonest on
their applications had risen to more than 1,000, officials said in
a separate post.
Such apps might be useful in controlling unusually deadly
diseases such as Ebola or severe acute respiratory syndrome but are
less helpful with outbreaks of diseases like Covid-19 with lower
mortality and hospitalization rates, said Ben Cowling, head of the
epidemiology and biostatistics division at Hong Kong University's
School of Public Health.
In Shenzhen, Tencent rolled out a health-rating system through
its massively popular chat messenger WeChat. Residents apply for a
health code to be used at checkpoints all across the city, at
neighborhood entrances and road blocks as well as in airports and
The bar code replaces the use of paper-based records and
minimizes human interaction, lowering the risk of the virus
spreading within a community, the Chinese technology giant said in
a statement on social media.
Multiple calls to the Shenzhen government's propaganda office
went unanswered on Tuesday.
Similar systems have recently been adopted in Shanghai, the
central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, and in the coastal provinces of
Zhejiang and Fujian, according to state media reports. Hangzhou,
where Alibaba and Ant are located, is the capital of Zhejiang.
Mr. Ma, the Hangzhou lawyer, said his experience has convinced
him the city would be better off using humans to help machines to
make such decisions.
"It matters whether or not people can enter a city, or whether
or not people get stuck in their apartments," he said.
--Yang Jie and Stu Woo contributed to this article.
Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 18, 2020 12:36 ET (17:36 GMT)
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