Pro-China politicians call for a centralized database to control the movements of the city's seven million people.
By Lee Yuk Yue and Qiao Long
People queue for COVID-19 tests in Hong Kong's Tuen Mun district, Jan. 12, 2022.
Pro-China lawmakers in Hong Kong have thrown their support behind proposals to use Hong Kong's "Leave Home Safe" COVID-19 tracking app to impose restrictions on the movements of the city's residents, in a manner similar to the app's mainland Chinese equivalent.
While the city currently requires people to check in at government venues with the app, around 10 lawmakers hit out at "loopholes" in COVID-19 controls, with most Legislative Council (LegCo) members favoring the use of a real-name tracking option in the Leave Home Safe app, which could bar residents from taking public transport, entering public places or even leaving home at all.
China’s health code app, which is increasingly required for residents to travel, be in public spaces or even leave their homes, has been described by experts as a "population control tool" rather than a contact-tracing app in the sense used in less restrictive regimes.
Fifteen lawmakers in the city recently wrote to Chief Executive Carrie Lam calling for a real-name system for the LeaveHomeSafe app, the establishment of a centralized database, and the distribution of smart wristbands with tracking of close contacts of known COVID-19 cases, as the authorities struggled to contain an outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron variant in the city.
The letter said a real-name system for the LeaveHomeSafe app could also be integrated with other smart systems, and link users’ personal information with their vaccination records.
It called for the app to track users’ whereabouts, with their travel history uploaded to an encrypted centralized database, creating a "health code" app similar to the one used in mainland China.
Democratic Party medical spokesman Ramon Yuen said such a plan could result in mandatory restrictions on the movement of individuals.
"This will be a hard thing for the public to accept," Yuen told reporters.
Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) respirator medicine expert David Hui agreed.
"The real-name system is more acceptable in China," Hui said. "It hasn't been implemented in Hong Kong yet, because the public may not accept it."
Hui called for a less restrictive vaccine passport system to be used to gain entry to restaurants and entertainment venues.
Former security chief Lai Tung-Kwok, who proposed the LegCo "loopholes" motion, and Junius Ho, who was among those who signed the letter, were among 20 pro-China lawmakers sent to compulsory quarantine after a cluster of COVID-19 cases at a birthday bash for National People's Congress (NPC) delegate Witman Hung that drew Beijing's ire and prompted Lam to order an investigation.
Status can quickly change
Meanwhile, residents of Beijing were complaining that the app can change their status at a moment's notice, making it hard to plan anything or to move around at will.
A Chaoyang district resident surnamed Liu said that once a person's health code turns red, they are placed under compulsory quarantine and observation for seven days.
"It doesn't matter where you are; your health code could change color, and you won't know why," Liu said. "Then you won't be allowed to go back [to Beijing]."
"There is always someone in our group chat saying they can't get back into Beijing [because of this]," she said.
One user complained on the video-sharing platform Douyin that she was left stranded after her code turned red.
"I went to the basement parking lot [20 kilometers from home] to get in the car, and I scanned my code," the woman said. "It turned out that there was a confirmed case in my residential community, and I was told to go home and isolate for seven days."
"So I went down to get a taxi to rush home, but when I scanned my code it was red, and the driver kicked me out of his cab," she said. "I called my community committee and asked them what to do, and they said I should find a way."
The woman said calls to the mayoral hotline, police and ambulance services resulted in zero assistance.
A Beijing resident surnamed Chen said residential committees are doing everything they can to stop people going out at all.
"I have had a third shot ... not just to get a green code, but even that wasn't enough," Chen told RFA. "I now need a certificate from my residential committee proving I'm not a red code ... it's so strict now."
Current affairs commentator Xiang Wei said there is a huge amount of political pressure for officials to comply with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s "zero-COVID" policy ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which opens on Feb. 4.
"China regards the zero policy as a political achievement, but foreign countries regard it as extremely authoritarian," Xiang said. "They are looking to blow their own trumpet on the world stage for their efforts in fighting the pandemic, and omicron."
China recently reported 87 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 55 were locally transmitted in Henan, Tianjin, Guangdong and Beijing, and 32 came from incoming travelers.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.