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Smartphones and QR codes are now indispensable tools in quarantined Beijing

Beijing, once completely empty as authorities enforced quarantine measures through tech applications, is now slowly returning to normal.

Empty Beijing- Photo by Ray Zhou on Unsplash Empty Beijing- Photo by Ray Zhou on Unsplash

Before leaving my hometown of Tianjin, where I spent my Chinese New Year holiday, I would have never imagined that my phone, some new apps, and QR codes—otherwise mainly used for mobile payments—would become even more essential tools back in Beijing.

I knew I would be greeted by quarantine regulations forcing me to stay in my apartment for 14 days upon arriving, due to the coronavirus outbreak that took the country by storm. I was prepared for some hurdles: loneliness, lack of fresh air, and my own bad cooking skills. However, I never expected the gate of my residential compound to be the biggest hurdle of them all.

All over Beijing, thousands of residential compound administrators and authorities have been busy ensuring people stayed indoors and obeyed their quarantines. The same happened in my compound.

After arriving, two people wearing guard uniforms, both wearing masks, were standing in front of the gate. One of these guards, a man in his 40s, was asking every person to present their entrance passes before getting inside the compound. It was around 12:30 p.m., and the line was about three or four people long.

I walked up to the second guard, told him my story, and presented my key. I was just about to continue on my way until he stopped me.

“You have to provide some personal information before re-entering your apartment,” he said, as he pulled several documents from the pile. It looked like he had done the same thing hundreds of times already, including the standard speech to all returnees like myself.

The documents included two copies of a notification letter for the quarantine, indicating that I was required to undergo a 14-day quarantine as stipulated by government regulations, and two copies of a commitment letter, which I had to sign before continuing.

I filled out and signed all the documents. The guard took one copy and told me to keep another, which I would have to hang it on my apartment door, to let my neighbors know about my predicament.

Next, I scanned a QR code that took me to a WeChat mini-program called Jingxin Xiangzhu. The guard told me returnees from other places in China are required to give their address, arrival date, and health condition via this mini-program when checking in with their residential compounds, as per government regulations.

Launched on February 12 by the Beijing government, with technical support from Tencent’s cloud computing unit, the WeChat-based mini-program has received over 50 million views as of March 1. The platform is also accessible through the Alipay and Baidu apps.

In addition to a check-in tool, Jingxin Xiangzhu can be used by residential compounds to track the health of residents who are going through the 14-day lockdown. Returnees have to report their body temperature and any potential symptoms related to the epidemic via the mini-program on a daily basis. After finishing the 14 days, the app sends users a certification in the form of a QR code, which can be used to get approval for leaving the compound.

Jingxin Xiangzhu’s authorization QR code, meaning a user’s quarantine has been completed. Source: screenshot

I thought I heard about this before, but it was still surprising to see the initiative actually rolled out and put in place. As a tech reporter for KrASIA, I had written daily articles in the past weeks on technology being used to contain the coronavirus, but this was my first truly hands-on experience.

While I usually spend hours exploring different mini apps and other platforms for the sake of journalistic research, now was different: I just wanted the whole process to be over so I could get inside my home and rest after nearly two hours on the road.

Just when I was about to start checking the new documents, the guard asked me to provide my location information during the past 30 days, just to make sure I didn’t visit any places close to Hubei, the epicenter of the coronavirus.

First, I sent a text message to China Mobile, one of the three major state-owned telecom carriers, to authorize it to access to my location data. Then, I received a message from the carrier, saying that I’ve stayed in Tianjin for the past 30 days. Wondering how the telecom carrier got my location information, I handed my phone to the guards, who took a picture of the location message on my screen.

“You don’t need to worry, you haven’t been to anywhere close to Hubei,” he said.

The next two steps were the quickest and easiest. The guards tested my temperature—36.5 degree Celsius—and gave me three large plastic bags for the trash I would accumulate in the coming two weeks.

“You can put the bags in front of your apartment door once they are full, and call the managing office to remove them,” he said.

Finally, the guard gave me the last instruction, one that felt like it was right out of an apocalypse-themed gameshow. 

“Now, you have to buy everything that you’ll need for the next 14 days,” he said, and pointed to the supermarket down the street.

My mind went blank for several seconds—I hadn’t thought about what I will do about food during my quarantine except for the prepared food I had with me. Instead, I had just a few minutes to put together a 14-day meal plan and buy ingredients in 20 minutes.

I rushed into the supermarket, picking up anything that could last more than two weeks. A large bag of mixed vegetables, several packs of instant noodles, milk, bread, rice, and a few other things. When I returned to the gate, I piled all the food up, and the guard took a picture of it—as required by the managing office, he said.

The shelves for instant noodles in the nearest supermarket were half empty.    Photo by KrASIA.

“You’re all set! Please remember to report your body temperature every day, and you’ll get an entrance pass when your quarantine is over,” he added.

Finally, I was allowed to return to my house after spending nearly an hour getting through the front gate. Later that day, I found my personal info page on the Jingxin Xiangzhu mini-program, marked as “checked-in with the compound.” This meant my 14-day quarantine had officially started.

As I was starting my isolation period, I talked over the phone with some friends who just finished their quarantines. They told me that even after finishing their lockdowns, they need to use QR code-related technologies wherever they go in the capital.

My friends were talking about Beijing’s recently unveiled color-coded QR system which, similar to Jingxin Xiangzhu, tracks whether they have been quarantined or not, and assigns users one of three colored QR codes, green, yellow, or red, depending on their status.

The app, accessible via mini programs on WeChat and Alipay, let users register after submitting their name, national identity number, and face scan. Then, it sends users a colored QR code, which they can present at checkpoints upon entering public places such as shopping malls, restaurants, or parks. These color-codes are not mandatory, but many public and private places are enforcing their use as a precaution.

Users with a green code—for those who have finished their quarantine or have not been in affected areas—are allowed to moving around the city relatively freely, while a yellow code means they are still required to be undergoing a 14-day self-quarantine at home. A red code indicates a supervised quarantine, in which the person has to go to a designated quarantine location where they will be monitored by medical personnel. 

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These colored QR codes refresh automatically every day, according to the latest data received by the government. For example, if the authorities receive information that a user might have been in contact with a suspected case, the QR code could unexpectedly change to yellow or red.

In addition to the color-coded QR system and the Jingxin Xiangzhu app, many Chinese companies are also using office collaboration apps to track employees’ status. My friend Emily, for example, was required to fill out an online form via WeChat Work several days before going back to work. She had to provide the date she would return to Beijing, whether she was still under quarantine, her planned date and time to be in the office, and her health condition.

Then, she was issued a pass and a QR code on WeChat Work indicating she could enter the office building, which she has to present to a guard at the entrance every time she walks inside. Other office apps, such as Alibaba’s DingTalk and Baidu Hi, also have similar functions to support the resumption of work.

My quarantine ended on March 15, and I have now a beautiful green QR code on my phone, which I show—quite happily—every time I need to leave my house. I hope this color will never change.

Sun Henan is a KrASIA reporter who returned to Beijing from her hometown, Tianjin, on March 1. She had to follow the Beijing government’s requirements and go through a 14-day self-quarantine in her apartment.