Hong Kong’s COVID-19 App Could Aid China’s Erosion of Local Freedoms

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The adoption of an app for tracking coronavirus infections has sparked concern in Hong Kong, the Chinese port city where an authoritarian law passed last year is incrementally dismantling local freedoms and rule of law. 

Launched last November, the LeaveHomeSafe app helps the city government monitor and keep track of people to help fight the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. But for Hongkongers — millions of whom took part in the 2019 democracy movement — the large amounts of personal data the app collects could also help the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) solidify its control over the city. 

In mainland China, the Health Code has become mandatory in most of the country. By April 2020, more than 200 Chinese cities have activated the “Health Code” based on the Alipay platform, which is owned by Alibaba Group, a tech company known for its collection of big data. A two-dimensional barcode is automatically generated in red, yellow, and green to dynamically display the individual’s pandemic risk level. The app tracks each individual based on his or data; a user not classified as “green” is not permitted to leave home.

‘Report info and location to police’

After the launch of the Health Code, an analysis by a New York Times reporter found that once a user authorizes the software to access personal data, a program called “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” sends the user’s location, city name and identification code to the server. 

The report said the system not only determines in real-time whether a person is at risk of infection, but also shares user information with the public security authorities, and sends the user’s personal information, location and identification code to a server that may persist long after the pandemic is over.

In addition, the system has been found to be highly manipulated; since May 2020, Chinese media have reported that the Health Code of residents in Wuhan — where the epidemic originated — had been pre-set to red. The government of Hangzhou in eastern China has integrated data collected by the Health Code with the social credit system, and the Health Code of political dissidents and religious believers have been set to yellow or red, rendering them under effective house arrest. 

Hongkongers fear that LeaveHomeSafe could carry out a similar function to the mainland’s Health Code, and be used to suppress political dissent. 

The CCP and pro-Beijing Hong Kong government used violence and the pandemic to suppress the pro-democracy protests. (Image: Studio Incendo via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Cherrypicks and BRI

Cherrypicks, the developer of LeaveHomeSafe, is a Hong Kong-based company. It has been working closely with the Hong Kong government and also provided software solutions to pro-Beijing media, including Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) in Hong Kong.

One well-known incident involving the company is that in the 2012 Miss Hong Kong pageant, the referendum system designed by Cherrypicks malfunctioned at the last minute. This caused the popular candidate Tracy Chu to lose the title to Carat Cheung. Many Hongkongers suspect the vote was rigged.

Cherrypicks’ founder Jason Chiu has a close relationship with the Hong Kong authority and tendered projects from it every year. He is also the vice chairman of the Innovation and Technology Commission, an agency of the government, and a member of Belt and Road Committee of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

The Belt and Road Committee of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council was formed under the Belt and Road Initiative, a national strategy adopted in 2013 by the Chinese government to participate in global infrastructure by investing in nearly 70 countries and international organizations. Many scholars and media have long warned that the Belt and Road have not only plunged many participating developing countries into huge debts, selling or leasing land and important ports or airports to China to repay their debts, but also introducing social monitoring systems with data backdoors to China and causing those countries to face national security crises.

In a report, independent media Apple Daily noted that in Hong Kong, association with the Belt and Road means receiving national-level funding and support. Only those trusted by the CCP authorities are allowed to join the Belt and Road-related committees.

Phased implementation

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Innovation and Technology, Alfred Wing-hang Sit, said that he will implement the LeaveHomeSafe App in phases. The department will establish a complete contact tracking platform with the Department of Health, the police and other departments, and may become mandatory for future use by the public when they travel.

Barrister John So, a member of Progressive Lawyers Group, told the Ming Pao newspaper last November that it is unacceptable and dangerous for the government to force the public to use the app. He thinks it will set a bad precedent for the government to infringe on personal privacy on the grounds of fighting against the epidemic.

View of Hong Kong from Jardine's Lookout as the sun sets.
Communist China’s “national security law” has destroyed much of the system guaranteeing Hong Kong’s freedom.(Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Hong Kong restaurants are allowed to reopen dine-in on February 18 after more than a month of lockdown. The government has ordered the public to use the LeaveHomeSafe APP or leave their personal information for data collection. Local news also reported that people are forcibly required to install the APP in order to enter public buildings, shopping mall, cinemas, parks, restaurants and more.

The city has been slowing opening up after the latest lockdown. However, local media have reported that people are being increasingly required to install the LeaveHomeSafe app in order to enter public venues such as malls, parks, or restaurants.

‘National security’

In 2019, when the Hong Kong government tried to pass a controversial extradition law, millions of people came out to protest the bill. Their fear was that the law would allow Communist China to arrest people in Hong Kong and make them stand trial in mainland China. The demonstrations lasted almost a year, turning into a democratic movement that shook the authorities in Beijing.

In June 2020, the CCP imposed a so-called “National Security Law” on Hong Kong. The event, described as the “normalization” of the former British colony by Beijing, effectively made it illegal for Hongkongers to offer serious protest to the communist regime. In addition, the novel coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for the city’s people to organize in large numbers.

Hong Kong’s government has arrested hundreds of people after passing the national security law. These include the founder of Apple Daily Jimmy Lai, as well as the leaders of the protest movement, such as Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam.

By Jacqueline Chung

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  • Jacqueline grew up in Hong Kong with a first hand view of the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to undermine democracy in the City. She was a witness to 2019's monumental anti-CCP protests before moving to Canada in 2020.