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How the covid pop-up window is wreaking havoc on daily life in China

A frustrating feature in Beijing’s covid app reveals major cracks in the technocratic zero-covid system.

October 4, 2022
A health worker holds a Beijing Health Code for people to scan as they line up for a covid test
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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Welcome back! Hope you are not stuck in highway traffic if you are enjoying the National Day holiday in China. 

Though maybe it’s still better than staying at home—after all, travel feels like such a luxury in China today. While the rest of the world drops its remaining covid-related travel restrictions, even a short trip in China is plagued by flight cancellations, mandatory quarantines, and requirements to update regular covid test results. 

And for the more than 20 million people who live in or visit Beijing, the capital city, there is one additional worry: a pop-up window that can randomly show up on your phone to disrupt all your plans.

Starting in 2020, China rolled out a contact tracing program that assigns a QR code to everyone in the country. It shows your covid status and allows you to enter public venues or take public transportation. Part of China’s stringent zero-covid policy, the system has persisted, and some of the once-lauded features that kept deaths comparatively low in the country now feel more burdensome than beneficial to its citizens. (Most covid apps in other countries have been suspended. We documented all of them back in 2020.)

The pop-up, 弹窗, is one additional complicated layer that Beijing added to its tracing system. This window in the mobile covid app won’t go away unless the user immediately takes a PCR test. It gives broad instructions on what to do under the title “friendly reminders,” but it’s not so friendly. It masks a user’s QR code so that it can’t be scanned, thus denying people access to just about everywhere in China. In some cases, it takes only a day to get a PCR test to make the window go away; other times, people may be asked to quarantine at home for seven days or more.

I have friends scattered around all parts of China, and this year I’ve seen so many of them complaining about it. “I went to take a PCR test to solve the pop-up window problem, but the testing location turned out to be a high-risk zone, so I was asked to quarantine at home for 14 days,” wrote a friend in April. The specifics may differ, but they all agree on the particular menace: no one knows why they are receiving the pop-up window or when they will get it, and there’s no way to prepare for it.

Officially, the municipal government of Beijing says there are several reasons why people get a pop-up window: you have been to a city with recent covid cases; you have just been abroad; you have been in the same “time and space” with someone exposed to covid; or you didn’t get a PCR test within 72 hours of buying fever or cough medicine. 

But the problem is, despite being touted as a high-tech pandemic solution, the app’s risk-identifying mechanism tends to cast a wider-than-necessary net, with zero explanation as to why the pop-up is appearing—which often leaves people confused and stuck in covid limbo. 

That’s what happened to Flora Yuan, a 28-year-old Beijing resident. She received the pop-up window for the first time earlier this year when she was walking outside her office building; she was immediately blocked from reentering. “After the pop-up window, you could still walk around on the street, but you’d need a QR code to go into any place, a park, a restaurant, or a shop,” she told me recently. 

Since then, she has received the pop-up window just as she was about to enter a restaurant; on the day of Chinese New Year, when all hospitals were closed and she couldn’t take a PCR test anywhere; and hours before she was supposed to take a train out of Beijing. 

In none of these instances had she actually engaged in high-risk activities or had a known exposure. As best she could guess, the system perhaps thought she was elsewhere (her phone number was not registered in Beijing), or she unknowingly happened to be in the same GPS location with a covid patient, perhaps on the subway. 

But whether or not she was actually exposed is sort of beside the point. Since there’s little explanation for why the windows appear, there’s no accountability. And erring on the side of caution (and over-reaching into people's lives) is a feature of the pop-up window, not a bug.

For all the hype about how tech-savvy the Chinese government is, the pop-up windows reveal major cracks in the system: though often viewed outside China as a smart but dystopian use of surveillance technology, the actual covid tracing app is flawed and creates more burdens than it resolves. 

The impact has been vast: When people are waiting for the pop-up to disappear, they miss out on their jobs, vacations, and sometimes urgent medical services. Thousands of people have complained on Weibo about the pop-up suddenly stranding them far from home. The pop-up also haunts the lives of the millions of non-Beijing residents who go to the city for work or to visit family and are subject to the same unpredictable restrictions. 

Instead of precise prevention, the technology is more of a blunt instrument that enables the government to be as strict as possible,just like how China obsessively disinfects every surface. Does it help China reduce the number of covid deaths? Yes. But at what cost? 

Increasingly, this is how the public in China feels. The measures that were considered essential in reducing covid’s spread in the first two years of the pandemic now feel performative and taxing. Ordinary people, even if they want to abide by the covid control policies, still feel they can’t control their own lives. For Yuan, the only thing she can do is to frequently check the app, sometimes once every hour, before she’s due to board a train or plane. 

“Compared to all the tragedies caused by the covid prevention policies, this probably doesn’t seem significant. But when it falls on an individual, it still feels devastating,” she says. 

Have you had a traumatic experience with the pop-up windows, or do you have any thoughts on them as a pandemic tool? Write to me at zeyi@technologyreview.com

Catch up with China

1. I wrote last week about how a new fuel can help transition China’s cars away from gas—good!—but may also increase China’s dependence on coal—not so good. (MIT Technology Review)

2. Lots of news in the Chinese vaccine world: 

  • Indonesia became the first country to approve a Chinese-made mRNA vaccine for emergency use—it hasn’t been approved even in China yet. (Reuters $)
  • Moderna wants to offer its mRNA vaccine in China but has reportedly refused the government’s request to transfer the technology to a Chinese company in order to sell it there. (Financial Times $)
  • Japan is going to start waiving covid test requirements for foreign travelers if they’ve been vaccinated with three shots—including (non-mRNA) Chinese vaccines. (The Strait Times)

3. From “static management” to “unnecessary food,” here are the nonsensical phrases deployed by the Chinese government to serve its zero-covid policy. (The New York Times $)

4. Richard Liu, founder and ex-CEO of China’s ecommerce giant JD, settled a 2018 sexual assault lawsuit in Minnesota. (The Wall Street Journal $)

5. Say bye to Google Translate in China, one of the last remaining services from the tech giant that was still operating in the country. (CNBC)

6. New research shows how Chinese-government-backed hackers have targeted Tibetan organizations in exile. (Bloomberg $)

Lost in Translation

Home to over 90% of e-cigarette production in the world, China has implemented a much stricter regulation on vaper sales since October 1, reports the Chinese publication Sina Tech. All e-cigarettes need to have childproof locks built in, and companies can’t produce or sell fruit-flavored e-cigarettes, which are controversial for attracting children to vaping. Also, wholesalers and retail owners will have to make all transactions on a state-operated central marketplace, and only after they secure licenses from the state. Amid the rush to comply with the new rules, some retailers are hoarding fruit-flavored e-cigarettes and selling them at a 100% premium.

One More Thing

WeChat or baijiu liquor—which one represents China’s economic future? On Friday, Kweichow Moutai, maker of China’s luxury liquor (priced at over $200 per bottle), dethroned Tencent as the most valuable publicly traded Chinese company. The latter has seen its market cap evaporate 64% since January 2021, mostly as a result of China’s moves to regulate Big Tech. It turns out tech companies come and go, but baijiu is forever.

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