As Hong Kong sees a rebound in COVID-19 cases, the city is preparing to test its entire population for coronavirus by the end of August. For their part, pro-Beijing politicians are pushing to use the test results in a tri-color healthcare system.
The color-coding system, implemented in different cities in mainland China, assigns a QR code to citizens based on the results of the COVID-19 test. Those who test negative receive a green QR code on their cell phones, which allows them to circumvent some social isolation restrictions, such as going to restaurants.
The proposal has raised privacy concerns in Hong Kong, with many fearing that authorities could use the system to track people's location and restrict their movements for political reasons.
While the implementation of such a system in Hong Kong remains under debate, the city is on track to test its entire population of 7.5 million people, with help from Beijing.
Mainland China has already sent a team of 60 medical workers to help with the massive operation, which will cost 150 million Hong Kong dollars (about 20 million US dollars). Local authorities estimate that at least five million citizens will volunteer for the trial scheduled to begin in late August.
But pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong are urging people to boycott the test.
With three laboratories located in mainland China selected to process test results, surveillance fears are heightened. Some activists argue that the Chinese government could use the opportunity to create a DNA database of all Hong Kong citizens, a measure similar to those that Beijing has implemented in Xinjiang.
Activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter:
– Joshua Wong 黃 之 鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) August 7, 2020
(Laboratories located in China take tests across the city. One laboratory is said to have been involved in collecting DNA from Uyghurs.)
The Hong Kong Government has just announced city-wide COVID-19 testing. Without proper bidding procedures, Carrielam directly awarded HK $ 150 million for the project.
And Legislator Eddie Chu said:
CCP is seizing any chance to set up an intrusive social surveillance system in HK, this time in the name of anti-pandemic “health code”. It will enable CCP to track individuals location, restrict freedom of movement, introduce “Social Credit System” and control the flow of money.
– Chu-Hoidick Eddie (@ChuHoiDick) August 14, 2020
The Chinese Communist Party takes every opportunity to implement an invasive social surveillance system in Hong Kong, this time in the name of the “health code” against the pandemic. It will allow the Chinese Communist Party to track people's location, restrict freedom of movement, introduce the “Social Credit System” and control the flow of money.
The Hong Kong government says that the laboratories in question will not have access to personal information, and that the authorities do not intend to integrate the results of universal tests with a future code-based healthcare system.
In addition to surveillance concerns, local health experts question the efficacy of universal tests to prevent the spread of the virus. Studies have found that polymerase chain reaction tests can produce false negative results if the test is applied to the patient in the early stages of infection.
In an interview with The Standard, microbiology expert Ho Pak Leung said that for a code healthcare system to be effective, universal testing must be performed weekly, which would be tremendously expensive.
The color coding system
The Hong Kong activist group Global Connect explained in a long thread from Twitter how the health system works by codes in mainland China.
After the test for SARS-CoV-2 is applied to all citizens in a particular place, the system assigns them a QR code that is downloaded to the people's mobile phone, with one of three colors: green, yellow or Red.
Citizens with a yellow or red code are not allowed to enter public spaces or use public transportation. Restaurants and shopping centers must scan the QR code to all customers at the entrance.
But the public is not entirely clear about the criteria behind the color assignment. There have been reports of unexplained red and yellow codes. An analysis by The New York Times found signs that the mobile app is sharing people's movements and location data with police.
In China, the code-based healthcare system is managed by AliPay. The same company is behind Sesame Credit, a fundamental component of China's social credit system that punishes the “bad” citizens and rewards the “good” ones.
The data used in the social credit algorithm are from citizens' financial and criminal records, and also from petty crimes such as reckless crossing of a street or littering on public roads (and online behavior). AliPay is owned by Ant Finance, a subsidiary of the tech giant Alibaba.