Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A worker checks passengers’ body temperatures and a health code on their phones before they take a taxi after arriving at Hankou railway station in Wuhan. Technology has been crucial to getting around in China during the pandemic but not everyone is able to take part in this digitally-driven society. Photo: AFP

China’s coronavirus status app shuts many citizens out of society, but there are ways to bridge digital divide

  • There needs to be a complementary system for people who have poor digital skills or no internet access, say experts
  • Uneven tech distribution echoes gaps in age, wealth and education and, if not rectified, may lock many out of Chinese public life

Qian Binsheng, 68, has a smartphone. When he set off on a 100km journey alone from his home in Suzhou to Shanghai in May, he did not expect he would rely so heavily on the device.

The retired worker used to kill time with his smartphone by watching videos shared by friends. But it has become a lifeline since February when China made a health status app a necessity to access most public venues amid the coronavirus pandemic.

He obtained his health code from Suzhou in the eastern province of Jiangsu by entering his name, national identity number and registering with facial recognition. The process took a prolonged phone consultation with his son who lives in another city.

Before Qian’s journey to have surgery in Shanghai, his son registered with the Shanghai hospital online, filled in an e-form declaring that his father was not a Covid-19 patient and helped him obtain a Shanghai health code, as most cities require people to be registered with their own health system.

A passenger scans the QR code while doing a health check on a taxi driver at Hankou railway station in Wuhan, Hubei province. Photo: Xinhua

“I thought I was well prepared,” Qian said, “But when I was asked to show the codes repeatedly in public places, from railway stations to the hospital, I became anxious and nervous.

“I saved the screenshots of the health codes beforehand to avoid internet fares. However, I was told to show a real-time status. I was in a muddle. I was so worried I may get something wrong with the smartphone,” he said.

The app, which generates a colour-graded QR code designating a health status, goes by several different names across the country.
Like hundreds of millions of Chinese people who have either limited internet skills or no internet access at all, Qian bore the brunt of a digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic. While the young and the rich embrace the convenience and accessibility brought by the internet, the elderly and the poor suffer from the lack of a complementary system for people outside the digital system.

China’s social media has been overwhelmed by an outpouring of sympathy after a video showed an Anhui farmer who took great pains last month to walk for more than 10 days from Hangzhou to Taizhou in eastern Zhejiang province because he had no mobile phone and no health code and was therefore refused travel by coach. The man was named by Shanghai-based news website The Paper as Dai Wenliang. Dai, 54, had wanted to visit a relative in Taizhou to get an odd job. He covered a nearly 300km distance on foot with occasional free rides.

In a case in March, an elderly man was driven off a bus in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, by the driver because he did not have the health status app and failed to figure out how to register, according to Pear Video, a Beijing-based video news platform.

Coronavirus apps must keep Big Brother at bay, EU privacy chiefs warn

“The secondary effects of the [health status] system do exclude those with poor access to technology,” said Jonathan D Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This isolation in terms of lack of access to food and medication and inability to interact with family and friends because of travel restrictions can be as bad as the results of the disease itself.

“One would hate to think that the elderly and poor are simply being abandoned by government authorities. Some complementary system surely needs to be introduced for them,” he said.

China’s optical fibre and 4G covers 98 per cent of its 1.4 billion population and the country is ambitiously building a 5G nationwide network. There were 1.6 billion mobile phone subscribers on the mainland last year, with many people having more than one subscription, official data showed.

The number of people with access to the internet via mobile phone, however, was 897 million in March – that is only 56 per cent of mobile phone subscribers – according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) in April. The statistic suggests many people either own non-smart phones or prefer not to surf the internet on their phone, possibly to save money or preferring to communicate the old-fashioned way.

Mainland China’s internet penetration rate, measured as a percentage of population, was ranked 18th of 35 Asian countries and regions, according to business data platform Statista. It was 58 per cent as of June last year, significantly lower than Asia’s top performers, including South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which had higher than 84 per cent penetration rate.

According to the CNNIC report, China has 496 million people who do not use internet, via mobile phone or computer. In urban areas 40 per cent of people do not use the internet, while it is nearly 60 per cent in rural areas. The report attributed this to them having “no knowledge of internet” because of “old age or lack of education”.

The gap between the technological haves and have-nots may create other problems in society, say observers. Photo: AFP

The inequalities in Chinese internet use can be traced back to yawning wealth and education gaps, said Hu Xingdou, an independent political economist in Beijing.

China, the world’s second-largest economy, has 600 million people – or over 40 per cent of its population – living on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan (US$140), Premier Li Keqiang revealed at a press conference in March.

Among people in China aged between 25 and 64, only 17 per cent had finished tertiary education – including universities, colleges, technical institutes and other institutions of higher learning – as of 2018, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The percentage is significantly lower than Canada, Russia, Japan, the US and other developed countries.

China wants to keep health codes after the pandemic but users aren’t so sure

The percentage of tertiary education population is even lower among the elderly, who lived through the decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 in which there was disrupted schooling and a crackdown on intellectuals, Hu said.

While philanthropic efforts could help provide internet education and funding for smartphone services, as seen in Hong Kong’s experience tackling the digital divide, there is a lack of trust of organisations in mainland China after recent scandals surrounding government-backed charities and crackdowns on foreign non-governmental organisations.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said: “Hong Kong is a capitalist society with a limited social security safety net by design, and thus is expected to rely on civil society for such matters.

“In contrast, China is meant to be a socialist country that looks after its old and weak and thus by design should not need civil society to fulfil such a function,” Tsang said. However, he said, the opposite was true.

Around 56 per cent of Chinese people have internet access, according to a study in April. Photo: AFP

Kei Koizumi, a science consultant and science and technology adviser in the Obama administration, said the Chinese government should provide the alternative for people without smartphones or internet access to still have access to the basic essentials for living in society, including shopping, public transport and employment.

However, the fear is that “China might make smartphones mandatory, either by law or de facto by closing off physical spaces. That would increase divides in society and increase wealth gaps just when society needs to be united,” Koizumi said.

So far, few local governments have introduced complementary measures in response to widespread complaints.

Hunan province in central China acknowledges the validity of printed health codes and provides public venue staff with scanning terminals to update the printed codes.

The governments of Chongqing in the southwest and Heilongjiang province in the northeast allow people to register health codes on behalf of their elderly parents. In Shanghai, those who do not have a smartphone can register with their community, which will issue a certificate akin to a health identity valid for 14 days, according to reports by Xinhua.

However, all the measures are aligned with the health status app.

Kevin Macnish, assistant professor in ethics and IT at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said he was not convinced that a health status app was necessary.

“There are alternatives, such as an anonymous tracking card proposed in New Zealand,” Macnish said.

A coronavirus tracking card is a hardware solution. People carrying a credit card-sized item can be tracked for Covid-19 spread without the use of a smartphone app.

“There are also options of traditional practice, such as increased testing, use of face masks, and even instituting partial curfews such that certain people were allowed to use public venues at particular times of the day,” Macnish said.

“This would reduce the risk of crowding without necessitating phone-based apps to monitor people’s behaviour. I’m not sure whether I like that as an option, but it is one way around the reliance on technology,” he said.

“While I think that there may be a justified cause for using phone tracking apps, I do not think that these are necessary in all cases.

“When there are risks of people being excluded from society, and especially from the basics required to survive, then a reliance on apps in the face of alternatives is disproportionate,” Macnish said. “It will likely prove to be harmful to those who are probably least well off in society: the sick, the poor, the poorly educated.

“Often governments have a tendency to leap on to the latest bandwagon, particularly if it is technological, at the expense of truly exploring alternatives.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Health status app hailed as lifeline reveals wide inequalities in net use