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China Lifts Lockdown, But Strict Controls Still Curb Residents

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

China is lifting some lockdown measures it put in place three months ago to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, but it has not relaxed its controls and surveillance over movement. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng reports on the measures that China is using to track where its residents, including her, travel.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Many streets in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, are still barricaded with plastic and corrugated metal blockades. And now there's something new pasted on these blockades, posters with QR codes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: When I step into this grocery store to buy water, for example, the store owner won't let me in until I scan a code that tracks which public spaces I've been to recently. I go thirsty because the codes don't work yet for those without a Chinese ID. On top of scanning QR codes, everyone in China has colored health codes on their smartphones. It's like a health certificate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Keep 1 meter distance in line and show your health codes" blares a loudspeaker at Wuhan's main train station. To leave Wuhan and get back to Beijing, I show my code, which uses an ID or a passport number to track recent travel or medical visits. Green code - you're OK to go. Red health code - sorry, but no travel.

This digital contact tracing mirrors more extensive methods other Asian countries have adopted. In Singapore, residents are encouraged to download an app that uses location data to roughly trace contact with a sick person. In Hong Kong, those quarantined are given a geofenced wristband paired with a tracking app.

MEICEN SUN: China has actually not been doing digital contact tracing as aggressively as a few other East Asian countries.

FENG: Meicen Sun is a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is on MIT's Work of the Future task force. Each city or province, she says, commissioned its own version of this rudimentary digital contact tracing system, so there are now some 200 overlapping apps. And, as Sun explains, no one knows how the apps work, really.

SUN: There does seem to be a lot of algorithmic black box when it comes to, you know, how exactly is one's health status determined.

FENG: And because there are so many different apps, the data is also localized. For example, I traveled from Wuhan to Shanghai to Beijing. Because I live there, I filled out a Beijing contact tracing app with my travel history and personal information. But I then got multiple calls from multiple local government bodies asking about my travel. None of them appeared to have told the others about my trip or had access to my complete records.

SUN: So the patchwork kind of pattern you've seen I think is in part explained by the fact that the problem-solving started at the city level because each city had to manage its own population.

FENG: As a result, much of China's tracing methods are far more low-tech. The brunt of monitoring travel falls on neighborhood committees - sort of like government-sanctioned homeowners associations who, in times of emergencies, are given extraordinary powers - in this case, the power to enforce quarantines.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

FENG: Hours after I get back to my apartment in Beijing, my neighborhood committee sends two employees to install an electronic sensor that alerts them every time I open my front door. If I open the door to get groceries or to throw out trash, they'll verify with my property managers that that's indeed what I did. And my health code has switched from a healthy green to a flashing yellow, meaning I should quarantine myself at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "We strongly recommend that you do not leave for the next 14 days. If you do, there will be consequences," the neighborhood committee warns me. Then, the door swings shut.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

FENG: I'll be seeing you in two weeks, world.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.