China turns to technology to track movements of returning workers and residents

As the coronavirus outbreak appears to subside in China and economic activity picks back up, authorities are harnessing technology to track and monitor millions of returning workers, potential remaining sickness cases and residents still in quarantine.

The methods help the government keep tabs on an unwieldy number of people, and allow data to be shared with various agencies, several Beijing-based employees and a residential building manager told MarketWatch.

Even as COVID-19 cases decline in the country, a second stage of epidemic control has begun, which focuses on surveilling for remaining infections and expediting the safe resumption of production at companies nationwide that have been closed for weeks because of the outbreak, classified as a pandemic on Wednesday by the World Health Organization.

The production stoppage has crushed China’s first-quarter economic performance, hitting areas as diverse as factories, tourism, retail, transportation and the service industry, especially food and beverage establishments.

But as of this week, two-thirds of workers have returned to their cities of employment, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. Proxy measurements of economic activity — electricity consumption and traffic volume — have also shot up over the last two weeks across the country. Even the province of Hubei, where the epidemic began and whose 60 million residents have been locked down for more than a month, has begun to allow inhabitants to leave their homes.

However, in many cities, residents returning from another Chinese locale or from abroad are still put into quarantine for 14 days. On Wednesday, Beijing announced that travelers coming from any foreign country into the capital must quarantine for 14 days — a step up from what had been restrictions only on high-risk countries such as Italy and South Korea.

Don’t miss: Diary of a quarantined American in coronavirus-era China

Upon being quarantined, residents are often required to join an online group chat consisting of others in their building also under quarantine, in which they are required to submit their temperatures twice a day. The building manager or another staff member monitors the group. However, the temperature submissions are done on an honor system — meaning residents could send in whatever number they want.

“I didn’t have reservations about reporting our family temperatures to the building management on a daily basis — although I was amused when, without notification, they pulled me into a public WeChat group with about a dozen other residents to collectively share our results,” an American who works at a business trade group told MarketWatch.

For those not in quarantine and allowed to return to work, equally stringent measures are being taken, to ensure cases to do flare back up — with travel-history checks, temperature monitoring and, at some companies, the scanning of a QR code that is connected to a health-reporting database, according to Chinese state media.

But besides their use as a tool for surveillance, the checks can be impediments for some workers.

At lunchtime Tuesday in Beijing, food-delivery worker Zhang Jian was standing in a plaza surrounded by a four-story restaurant and office building, looking up at a second-floor window. The window opened, and a women lowered a to-go order to Zhang using a long rope. He caught the item, unhooked the rope, and ran off to make his delivery on time. This method meant he did not have to enter the complex, scan the code, register his name, and have his temperature taken.

“Every second counts,” he said, as he scurried away.

In addition to the technology being used, foot soldiers in this war on the epidemic are also required. Hundreds of thousands of them.

At businesses and residential compounds in many Chinese cities, at least one worker — often two or three — guards the gate, with a digital thermometer, paperwork and a QR code in hand. Residents who’ve already proven that they’ve finished quarantine or not been out of the city in 14 days simply show an “entrance card” and submit to a temperature check

Face masks, too, remain required in most big cities in the country. During the height of the epidemic, videos circulated on Chinese social media showing fights breaking out or people being thrown out of stores for refusing to wear them.

However, on Wednesday in Beijing, a MarketWatch reporter counted dozens of people on the streets without them, a sign that the stringency of the rules may be relaxing. Stores and restaurants, though, still seem to be following the strictest of requirements.

At Moka Bros, a popular cafe in Beijing, placards were placed on each table, reading: “Please wear a mask when not consuming. If we do not comply with regulations, we risk being shut and our manager detained. Thank you for understanding.”

In this multifarious surveillance environment, some fear the tactics will persist even when the virus fully abates, allowing authorities even more population monitoring than they have had in the past.

“I don’t think [the government] wanted the virus,” said Zhao Mingfeng, an editor in the west of Beijing. “But I’m sure they welcome the excuse to use more surveillance tools.”

Tanner Brown is a writer for MarketWatch and Barron’s and producer of the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief podcast.

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