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Digital technologies help China curb spread of COVID-19

By Kou Jie (People's Daily Online)    17:05, July 13, 2020

At eight o’clock in the morning, just weeks after Beijing’s recent COVID-19 outbreak, 26-year-old art student Jiang Shan decided to visit the reopened National Museum of China. To enter the museum, he had to pass three checkpoints, get his ID card scanned, and most importantly, show his green health code to the guards.

A resident scans the QR code on a poster to register her personal health QR code in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang province, on Feb 15, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

The color-based health code is a modern method adopted by China to keep the spread of COVID-19 under control. Relying on algorithms developed by Chinese authorities and tech giants, as well as big data such as individual medical records and self-reported information, users’ mobile phones will automatically generate green, yellow or red QR codes to indicate a person’s risk of having been in contact with the virus. A green code grants unrestricted movement, a yellow code requires seven days of quarantine, while red means 14 days of quarantine.

Showing his green code to the guards, it took Jiang less than a minute to pass the checkpoint. Tickets are not needed — during the pandemic, most museums in China have offered visitors online booking services. All they have to do is type in their ID number to get an electronic pass.

“Using the health code to identify people at risk is easy and fast. With these codes, social order is maintained and our ordinary lives and work can run smoothly during the pandemic, while at the same time our safety can be guaranteed,” said Jiang.

The health code systems and online booking services are merely the tip of the iceberg of China’s numerous digital pandemic control methods. By using big data and Internet technologies, the country’s pandemic situation has now been fully brought under control, and disruption to economic and cultural activities have been kept to a minimum.

“China’s digital pandemic control methods are proven to be effective. Advanced technologies have been used to curb the spread of COVID-19, which can reshape China’s cyber landscape and provide more opportunities for the country’s post-pandemic development,” said Qin An, head of the Beijing-based Institute of China Cyberspace Strategy.

Technologies make life easier

Though it is currently under control, the virus continues to pose great threats to people’s lives and economic development in China. To counter such problems, advanced technologies have been used to help people get back to their daily routine, albeit virtually.

In order to prevent people-to-people contact, enterprises such as IKEA have offered clients 3D apps to match furniture with decorations without having to go to offline shops. Clients can enter keywords to select different pieces of furniture and colors, creating a virtual space. An IKEA shop in Baoshan District, Shanghai, hit a new daily sales record in just 1 hour and 20 minutes on June 1. 5G technology has also been used to set up unmanned supermarkets so that people don’t have to come into contact with each other.

For pandemic-stricken areas such as Wuhan, Chinese authorities and celebrities have been working together online to boost local economic vitality. In April, Li Jiaqi, a well-known Chinese live-streaming celebrity and a news anchor from CCTV, launched an online sales promotion for products from Hubei province, previously the hardest-hit region by COVID-19 in China, selling 40.14 million yuan ($5.7 million) in local products in just two hours. Nearly all 15 promoted products sold out within seconds of their introductions, including famous hot dry noodles, tea and other local agricultural products.

Digital technologies and the Internet have also been used to bring back production to earlier levels. Chinese productivity apps including Dingtalk, Wechat Work and Lark were named in a list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommendations for distance learning and working solutions.

“Our university has been using Dingtalk to give students lessons since the COVID-19 outbreak in February. The app has many useful functions such as handing in homework and signing up for classes, and we can also communicate with our professors and classmates online freely, which is very helpful,” said Jiang.

Since December 2014, Dingtalk has grown exponentially to become the world’s largest chat service designed for companies, with more than 10 million business users. During the pandemic, over 12 million students in more than 20 provinces have become involved in Dingtalk's online classroom project, which provides free services for over 20,000 primary and secondary schools nationwide.

The company has also seized the opportunity to expand its reach abroad. In April, the company officially introduced its overseas multi-lingual supported version, making functions like simultaneous video-conferencing with 300 people, live-broadcasts, and basic one-to-one text communications free to users worldwide amid the pandemic.

“The pandemic has fundamentally reshaped China’s digital economic landscape, as well as the use of internet technologies. Before the pandemic, people mostly used digital technologies for entertainment and shopping, but now, such technologies have provided platforms for production, and this trend may last even after the pandemic,” said Qin.

According to Qin, China’s advanced internet infrastructure and technologies have enabled the nation to resume production, as well as bring normality to people’s daily lives in a safer way, which will have a further impact on the nations’ post-pandemic economic and social development.

With 900 million Internet users, China now ranks first in the world, followed by India with 560 million and the US with 313 million, while around 710 million Chinese people shopped online in 2019.

Ethical and privacy concerns

As it uses big data to collect personal information such as travel and medical history, the health code systems have drawn mixed reactions, with some worrying about their privacy being violated.

“Conflicts and contradictions between the use of big data to safeguard the public and the protection of privacy do exist, and such problems have become even more prominent during the pandemic,” said Qin.

In an effort to balance the use of big data and the protection of citizens’ privacy, China’s top lawmaking body began reviewing draft data security legislation in July, with the draft saying that the state will protect the “legitimate rights of individuals and organizations” over the use of their data, and “promote the development of the digital economy.”

While a new cyber security law came into force in China in 2017, it provides only broad objectives for data security. The draft calls on China to build a standardized, interconnected, safe and controllable open platform for government data.

“In the Internet era, public opinion has influenced the rule of each nation’s cyber space. Unlike Western people, who attach great importance to personal privacy and less to public interests, the Chinese public is willing to work with the government to tackle major threats such as the pandemic, while the Chinese government has used means such as issuing laws to earn people’s trust,” said Qin.

“Conflicts between personal privacy and public data collection will always exist, but within time, a balance between the two will be reached, which is a win-win for both sides,” said Qin. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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