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It’s not easy staying green: Keeping out of China’s covid lockdown

China’s constant tests and status codes result in an endless struggle to maintain ‘green’ status or face social ostracism

Residents queue at a coronavirus testing facility in Beijing on May 23. (Bloomberg News)
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BEIJING — It sounds like a sci-fi movie: personal codes that grant you access to society or turn you into a pariah.

In China, this high-tech reality is here. These health mobile codes are updated in real time with your latest coronavirus test information and movements around town. Lose your green-code status, and you could be locked out of public spaces for days or weeks.

Officials tout the system as an innovative way to do what virtually no other nation is still attempting: eradicate all outbreaks of the fast-moving omicron variant of the coronavirus. It’s a staggeringly expensive campaign to test tens of millions of people daily, and there’s no end in sight.

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Remember Tamagotchis? Those digital pocket pets of the 1990s? These codes also require continual care and nourishment, except you need a negative coronavirus test every one to three days to feed this beast.

Also, if your Tamagotchi dies of neglect, you can restart the game. If you mess up your coronavirus code, you can’t enter a shop or public building and might be shipped off to quarantine.

These QR codes were introduced in the early pandemic days for contact tracing, but with many cities instituting continuous testing, they’re becoming a more intrusive part of life. With the devastation of Shanghai’s total lockdown in mind, officials hope that constant tests will help them catch outbreaks early.

In China’s capital, Beijing, a new term has been coined, tanchuang, or “pop-up window,” in reference to the app’s pop-up warning when you lose your precious green code status. Those who are “pop-up windowed” — the noun does double duty as a verb — are locked out of offices, supermarkets, taxis, buses and any other public spaces until they can clear their status.

“If you skip one day, then you have a pop-up window problem,” says Erin Chen, 32, who works in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where daily coronavirus testing became a requirement this month amid an outbreak.

There are different levels of tanchuang. If you missed only a coronavirus test, you can remedy your situation in as little as a day by taking a free test at one of the sidewalk stands located every few blocks across Beijing.

But if you unwittingly wander through a part of town designated as a covid hot zone, then you must stay home until a worker comes to test you and you are cleared — which could take days.

“Stay in place, and wait for a notice for coronavirus testing,” the text message says. “Thank you for your understanding about this inconvenience to you.”

The unluckiest souls are deemed close contacts of a covid patient, and they are assigned to quarantine centers. On Saturday, about 5,000 residents of one Beijing housing complex were taken for seven days of quarantine, after 26 cases were found in their community, according to state media.

Authorities have published intricate flow charts to try to elucidate the various routes to tanchuang. But hot zones are declared retroactively, making it impossible to guarantee a safe outing, no matter how hard one studies the charts. The lack of clarity is a feature not a bug: It’s an incentive for everyone to, well, just stay home.

It results in an uncommon degree of reflection before venturing across town for a meeting or to see friends — what if the trip results in a downgrade to your covid code?

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The unyielding rules of tanchuang have resulted in some strange experiences. One Shanghai executive, Ren Junxia, in Beijing as a tourist, found herself with a pop-up window on May 4. Her hotel refused to let her back in, saying that would put the entire hotel under lockdown. She ended up fleeing to a remote stretch of the Great Wall.

“I became a wandering soul with nowhere to go in the imperial capital,” she wrote in an online post that went viral.

Ren’s pop-up window disappeared on Day 5, as mysteriously as it came, filling her with joy. “My dear health code, you are normal!!!”

Beijing residents have reported being pop-up windowed while walking across the street to buy groceries and even while doing nothing in their apartments.

Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities appear to be following the model of Shenzhen, China’s southern high-tech hub, which has managed to stave off further outbreaks through continuous coronavirus testing of its 17.6 million people after a week-long lockdown in March.

Although Shenzhen is down to zero daily coronavirus cases, all public spaces still require a negative test within 72 hours, with some venues setting a shorter 48-hour window. In the evenings, long lines at testing centers snake across the city.

Klaus Zenkel, the European Union Chamber of Commerce’s South China chair and a Shenzhen resident, said that while wait times are short at some test sites, they can exceed half an hour at others.

“This testing is taking away a lot of time of the people,” he said.

According to estimates by China’s Soochow Securities, these tests cost 50 cents to $1.19 per test, which means the expenditures could reach as high as 1.27 percent of China’s nominal gross domestic product if 48-hour testing becomes standardized across major cities.

China’s financial capital, Shanghai, did not require continuous testing before it went into a traumatic two-month lockdown in March. As it begins to emerge, Shanghai has announced plans for “normalized” citywide coronavirus testing, with an aim of having a site within a 15-minute walk from anywhere in the city.

The arrival of a digital code guarding access to public life conjures up a previous project, China’s social credit system. Begun in 2014, the social credit system sparked considerable debate due to fears that it would use “big data” to rate individuals, potentially affecting what they could do and where they could go — reminiscent of a particularly famous episode of the television serial “Black Mirror.”

Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, said the social credit system was widely misunderstood and has ended up in practice to be largely a regulatory mechanism for businesses. As for the health codes, he said they differ from social credit in their narrow focus on coronavirus health data.

“This is looking at a specific data set of your test results and where you’re located, it seems like,” Daum said. “The difference is that people imagine the social credit system as analyzing all aspects of your life.”

Still, some residents worry the health codes might endure as a social gatekeeper.

On Monday, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan wrote on social media platform Weibo that she was concerned about Beijing’s announcement that public buses would require health code check-ins.

“This also means the health code may accompany us permanently in our lives, controlling our freedom of movement at any time,” she wrote. “I am very concerned about this, because such measures have major hidden dangers.”

Authorities have said the continuous testing program is temporary, but they have not given a timeline for when coronavirus vaccination levels will be high enough to lift controls. While many of the test sites in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are pop-up tents, others are more permanent structures that suggest residents may be in for a long haul.

One Shanghai resident, a 24-year-old woman surnamed Liu who declined to give her full name to discuss local regulations, said a sturdy testing booth was just constructed outside her housing complex, equipped with air-conditioning.

“In the future, this 48-hour PCR requirement basically means you need to test every day,” she said. “If you have a gap, your code will turn gray and you can’t go anywhere.”

Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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