Translation: What Happened When My Health Code Turned Yellow

China’s “zero-Covid” policy relies heavily on mobile phone apps that display a health code in one of three “traffic light” colors: red, yellow, or green. Users install the apps via WeChat or Alipay, enter their personal, medical and travel information, and the apps generate a color code that informs users whether they are at low risk and can travel freely (green), are at medium risk and need to self-isolate for 7-14 days and be tested (yellow), or are at high risk and need to self-isolate or quarantine for 14 days and be tested (red).

An individual’s health app color code can change over time, depending on his or her travel history, contact history, biometric data, and local conditions. An analysis by The New York Times found that the Alipay health code app was also capable of sending individuals’ locations, city names and identifying code numbers to the police.

The recent expansion of yellow codes based on “spatial-temporal proximity” has turned daily life upside-down, forcing thousands into lockdown simply for being within 800 meters of someone whose health code is anything but green.

In this translated WeChat post, which appears to have leaked from a private account, “Gentle Moss” (温良的青苔) chronicles how all the caution in the world could not save him from a yellow health code, and why standing in line to get tested may be a fate worse than quarantine:

Since returning to Xi’an from Tibet on September 3, the majority of my movement has been limited to a radius of a few hundred meters from my apartment. I go downstairs for mixian, then come right back up and continue writing. On rare occasions I might pick up a package along the way. The farthest I go is to see my dad. That requires a subway ride and a walk. Whenever I go, I maintain social distance and wear a mask, and I always walk all the way down to the first subway car. I do all this out of habit. Plus, my sleep schedule is the opposite of most people’s. When everyone else is working, I’m sleeping, and vice versa, so I’m never out during rush hour.

With all this precaution, I didn’t take a single COVID-19 test for this trip to Tibet. I made it through every inspection point thanks to my green health code, my travel code, and a little sweet-talking. Saying the right things to the inspectors always helps, as well. They just took my temperature and let me go.

I was really careful. During the day, I was on my motorcycle, so of course I didn’t come into contact with anyone, and I put my mask on before going into my hotel at night. They only let me stay after I’d gone through strict COVID-19 protocols.

In spite of all this, a few days ago my health code turned yellow. I also got two text messages, informing me that I had passed through a high-risk area and was now required to quarantine at home. The last sentences really caught my attention: “Your health code will be continuously updated as pandemic conditions change. Please stay tuned for updates.”

I live in Xi’an’s Yanta District, just a few kilometers from Ci’en Temple (Giant Wild Goose Pagoda) where Master Xuanzang translated the Buddhist scriptures. It just so happened that those tourists from Shanghai—the ones who made pandemonium in northwest China—had visited Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. All of a sudden, the people of Yanta became China’s biggest pariahs. All around Xi’an, if you had a Shaanxi license plate, the traffic police would turn you away—“Go wherever you want, just not here.”

Just like having a Hubei plate last year.

This was a huge blow to me personally, because I have to leave my apartment complex in order to eat. But if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get back in. One look at my yellow health code, and security would stop me. There was absolutely nothing I could do.

The texts were sent from a number that was not a cell phone number. I couldn’t text it or call back. After my code turned yellow, all the stuff that used to be there, like the government services portal, neighborhood services, COVID-19 testing site information…they were all gone. There was just a big “code yellow” icon and some generic safety messages.

It didn’t make any sense to me. They should have at least left the testing site portal, no?

At any rate, that barren screen and those stern warnings made me feel like I’d been whisked away to a desert island. Sure, outside my window cars whizzed by and the hustle and bustle of normal life continued. But those people were all green. They could go wherever they pleased. Me? I was stuck. I couldn’t go to the grocery store, restaurants, movie theaters. I couldn’t ride the subway or any public transportation. And if I left my apartment, I wouldn’t even be allowed back in…

But that wasn’t even the biggest issue. My biggest issue was that when I told my family and friends that I wouldn’t be able to get back home if I went to the get-together we had planned for the following Monday, they all begged me to go get tested.

I didn’t want to go.

Of course, my reasoning was based on the fact that I had complete knowledge of my travel history, my strong sense of self-discipline, and the prevention measures I followed. Never in a million years would I allow myself to be running around if I wasn’t feeling well. One of my biggest fears is causing trouble for my family, friends, and the people around me. I never ask favors if I don’t absolutely have to.

Plus, the notice was clear: I was to remain quarantined at home. Fine, then, just let me stay at my office and eat takeout every day…

I believe testing is an important epidemic control measure, a necessary one. But I’m really confused about who should be getting tested and how the tests are done.

The free tests are run in batches of ten. That is, ten throat swabs (or nasal swabs) are put into the same machine, and if anyone in the group tests positive, then all ten people will be notified or tracked down, and measures will be taken.

You can also pay for a test. They cost 60 yuan (in the Chang’an District). The line for those is so long, you can’t see where it begins or ends.

When I asked one of the hundreds of people in line, it turned out that they all had yellow health codes. They had no choice. But everyone was crowded together. What happened to social distancing? If someone in line was positive, how many people would they infect?

That scene filled me with dread. I only spoke with the very last person in line, and only from a few steps away. As soon as I got my answer, I walked around them and left.

Terrifying.

This was a big reason why I didn’t want to get tested. My goal was to prove that I’m healthy, but in the process of attaining that proof, I could get infected.

Since I know that I personally am safe, I intuitively disagree with compulsory, universal testing.

It’s a feeling that comes from deep within. Perhaps this is what people call “civil disobedience.” Of course, I know I’m nothing but a lowly “denizen” (but I’ve always considered myself a citizen, at least a citizen of the world).

This is just my personal feeling. It’s really not a wise thing to write about in today’s China, but the feeling is real.

When friends and family all tell you to follow orders from the authorities, it’s a tremendous amount of pressure. (Only three people in my life supported my decision to follow my own thinking. Thank you to Brother Nian for being the most resolute supporter of them all.)

When compliance becomes a collective choice, when it affects all aspects of your life, and non-compliance introduces an immense amount of real, practical challenges, the dynamic becomes one of great power disparity, like trying to prop up a mountain with a twig.

I know the people in my life just want what’s best for me, honestly. They know I’m a staunch liberalist and a nonconformist, so they worry these problems I’ve brought on myself might break my spirit, that my inner torment will bring me all kinds of real-world strife.

So they plead with me to compromise. “It’s not like they’re asking you to get a shot,” they say. “Just go get it done, and it will be over. And once you do, you’ll be able to go wherever you want. Don’t make yourself suffer like this.” These words are really persuasive.

I actually did plan to give in, at first.

I’m a living, breathing human, after all. I need to eat and drink. I need to see my family and friends, go to the movies, go to the book store—and no one would let me in. I’d have a breakdown. I just can’t imagine how a normal, healthy individual could be labeled a threat by “big data” for nothing more than living in an area that a COVID-positive person once passed through. It’s like the plot from a sci-fi film I saw years ago, now becoming my reality.

I can’t just stop visiting my dad. But if they don’t let me into his complex, what am I going to do, force my way in? Security would kick me right out. The police would put me in a black cell. I can’t beat them. Actually, the moment my health code turned yellow, my ability to go to the supermarket or the theater wasn’t the first thing on my mind. I was worried the authorities would give me a call, then come and take me away.

Reality justified my worries. Yesterday afternoon I read that your code will turn red if you fail to get tested after two notices. You can imagine the consequences.

So, why not go get tested, I thought to myself. Otherwise, then what?

Yesterday morning, I turned on my motorcycle, took out my phone, and clicked the link Brother Dao sent me to find the closest testing site. I let my bike idle for a full three minutes as I paced back and forth in the late autumn morning air, thinking to myself, “You always tell people to stay strong and not give in, to be themselves. How could you let yourself give up so quickly? Is this really as far as you’re able to go?”

After five or six minutes of pacing, I turned the bike off and went back upstairs.

Sitting on my balcony looking out the window, I thought of my friends in the civil service: If I was under this much pressure for this small matter, they’d probably lose their jobs if they made the same decision as me. Their entire futures would be affected. Then what would they do?

In that moment, I really felt for them: You all have it rough. Really. When your survival depends on it, how could you choose anything but surrender?

But even if I got tested, would it really solve all my problems? The way I see it, not necessarily.

A good friend of mine, Youcai (pseudonym), drove to a certain city in the north yesterday. The traffic police saw his Shaanxi license plate and turned him away. Youcai explained that he’d been tested, but the police didn’t accept his test, which was from five days ago. The police told him the test had to be taken within 48 hours (the government standard is 15 days) and told him he had to go back. “Why didn’t you post this information online?” Youcai asked. “I’ve driven hundreds of kilometers.”

The officer was very polite. “Apologies,” he replied, “We just enforce the rules. We don’t control what gets posted online.”

I suspect the reason they don’t post it is because, according to the government, test results are valid for 15 days. But as is often the case when central government regulations get enforced at the local level, those 15 days became 48 hours. This is institutional inertia: as information travels through the bureaucracy, from the center down to the grassroots, recommendations become mandatory.

And for what?

It may seem like they’re just strictly enforcing the rules, but each local government acts like “the railway police—each in charge of one section,” so to speak.

Youcai had no choice but to turn around. On the way back, coming through a certain city to the west, the situation was much different. Not once was he stopped and asked to show his test results.

“If I really was a carrier,” Youcai said, “I could have just waltzed right in, you know?”

So you see, it’s either overreaction, or negligence. This is how things stand.

A few days ago, China Central Television’s official Douyin account reported that as of November 9, South Korea will officially adopt a policy of “living with COVID-19,” meaning they will treat it like the flu or any other infectious disease. An army of idiots mocked South Korea in the comments. It saddened me to see it—over 100 years, and not an inch of progress.

Should we be fighting the pandemic? Of course we should. We actually did a great job of it early on, when physical distancing drove infection numbers down. Of course, there were also a lot of infuriating situations, like barring people’s doors and apartment units. That’s why we had the Gong Lady’s performance.

But as the pandemic evolves around the world, a lot of initially hard-hit countries have begun to normalize. At Euro 2020 this summer, Chinese gazed in awe not only at the matches, but also at the seas of people allowed to gather at such huge events—during a global pandemic. And not only that, after the competition ended, there were no large-scale outbreaks. It proved Zhang Wenhong’s earlier prediction correct:

Our success in the fight against the pandemic has been achieved mainly through non-medical measures, i.e., administrative measures: centralization, isolation, lockdowns. These measures stifle production and distribution. We risk falling behind as other countries achieve success through medical means. Our administrative measures are unsustainable.

The Euros were held without a hitch. And yet here, any time we discover a few sporadic cases, it’s as if the world is coming to an end: people are forced to line up for testing; buses, trains, and airports shut down; roadblocks go up and shops are closed.

Can there be a balance between administrative and medical measures, while also taking people’s livelihoods into account? After all, the reason we are fighting the pandemic in the first place is to be productive and live our lives. But too much suppression adversely affects production, you know how our government works: The top issues an order, and the bottom does all it can to save its own skin. As for the lives of everyday people, how many officials actually care?

For three days, I constantly worried that agents would come and take me away, or that my health code would turn red. Every day, I woke up, anxiously checked my health code status, and settled in to staring at the walls. I wanted to duck out, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get back in. And even if I stayed home, I worried about getting taken away. Plus, I saw all the news, like the murder of that entire family in Wuhan yesterday. I couldn’t sleep, and I was exhausted.

But today there’s good news. My health code turned back to green all on its own. Perhaps they were monitoring me and saw I hadn’t left the apartment. Or maybe the situation on the ground has improved. At any rate, I’m free to move around again. Today I made a special trip to the next village over, just to walk around and get some fresh air. I took a video I’ll share with you all here:

Compared to when the pandemic first broke out, the situation has improved some, but we obviously cannot rest on our laurels now. I still support strict prevention measures, especially in crowded areas and transportation hubs. But the important thing is this: Can we face this pandemic the right way? Can local authorities refrain from leveraging this to expand their power over people’s lives? And can private enterprises stop themselves from profiting off the pandemic?

What’s the right thing to do? Take strict precautions, but don’t panic. Don’t live like it’s doomsday. Do what you have to do. If you have to quarantine, quarantine. If you have to do business, do business. If you have to go somewhere, go there. If you have to travel, travel.

If you’re sick, get treated. If you’re not, live your life. It’s as simple as that. OK? [Chinese]

Translation by Little Bluegill for CDT.

Translation: What Happened When My Health Code Turned Yellow