Contributions from China

Digital Devices, Guardians and New Frontiers in Beijing during the COVID-19 era

Author: Javier García-Martínez, MSc, Sociologist, Complutense University alumni. You can contact him at javier.gar.mar@outlook.com

Fieldsite: Chaoyang District, Beijing, and Spanish and Chinese online spaces.

Digital devices have become a key element in order to ensure safety in this new situation. Infrared thermometers, tracking apps and personal data are part of the everyday while living in Beijing during this COVID-19 era. The digital and non-digital are now more intertwined than ever. These devices establish new frontiers in the daily lives of China’s citizens; implying different degrees of care and surveillance for different subjects in various contexts.

Infrared Thermometers and Guardians

At the entrance of the numerous housing complexes, there will be a guard doing temperature checks and asking for identification as a resident. They are part of the “Neighborhood Committee” (shèqūjūmínwěiyuánhuì/社区居民委员会) that administers that residential community. Although some of them watch out the entrances 24/7, others state curfews amongst its residents; each community has its own small variations on how to address the situation, although temperature checks and resident’s passes are a constant in all cases.

The neighbourhood committee has digital records of its resident’s ID and contact information, all of which can be accessed by the Chinese government in case of need.

Fig. 1 – Public domain image of a woman’s temperature being taken.

Since the outbreak, it is common practice in Beijing to be subject to temperature checks every day. Restaurants, bars, shops, commercial areas, compounds – a person at the entrance, usually a man, will be waiting for you to ensure your temperature is between the safety levels considered as ‘healthy’. Although very similar to each other, each of these areas established its own ‘healthy’ measurements. Perhaps 36-38 C is conceived as the normalized safe range in some places, however, others go as low as 36.8 C for the maximum accepted temperature reading. In some cases, you must also write down in a list your name, telephone number, hour, date, ID document number (passport number, for example) and temperature reading.

Any temperature reading outside of that interval means to be banished to the only place an infected person is allowed to be; the fever clinics habilitated in the hospitals.

Health Kit APP

Get into a store in Beijing and someone may point at you to scan a QR code. This code is linked to the new “health kit” app which tracks where you have been during the past 14 days. If you have been in that same city during those days, then a green colour will indicate you have clearance to get inside. A red colour would indicate that you have travelled to a high-risk zone during the last two weeks, and then you should be in quarantine right now.

Fig. 2: My Healthkit App

A meeting at a restaurant on 26th of April did not go as planned. At the front door, a woman working there stopped me at the front door and did not let me go inside. She stated that my presence, easily identifiable as a foreigner, would make the rest of the restaurant guests uneasy and anxious.

Since the first announcement of the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing has seen a varied shift on who should be classified as ill. Some Beijing businesses banned the entrance to Wuhan residents when the news spread, established demarcations of free-of-virus spaces.

When the COVID-19 became under control in China, the new threat became the people coming from abroad bringing the virus with them. In this regard, government measures have been trying to close frontiers to foreigners outside of the country. Most people coming back to China with the virus have been Chinese people, however, the perception of a foreigner’s face is clearer. Right now, in some few cases, a foreign face is the face of the virus.

Although, it is important to put things into context; this restaurant incident is a rare one and not the usual experience. A temperature check and the health app are in most cases more than enough to prove that you are not a danger.

During the very first stages of the epidemy, for a short period of time, a certain number of places used signs in their businesses banning any person coming from Wuhan. The health app is also a tool for these businesses to offer an alternative way to find certainty, so only people that have been in high-risk areas 14 days prior are labelled as a health risk, and not forever. Although it implies a generalization, it could also be an interesting tool against group discrimination.

For some western people, this may be an infraction of individual privacy. For Chinese citizens, it is justified in order to feel safe. There is a common trust on the people collecting and making use of this data.

Notes from a preliminary analysis

Uncertainty, risk, modernity, health, illness, danger and purity are some of the most prominent concepts that come to my mind when I think about this new context that may become the new normality.

Digital and non-digital spaces, flesh and devices, are interwoven in a complex network to ensure spaces free of contamination establishing new frontiers. Purity, its infrastructures and its spaces are key elements to take into consideration at present times. A new figure is emerging, the guardians of the purity; equipped with infrared thermometers, QR codes and your data with the purpose of maintaining the safety.

Fig. 3. Source: public domain image

What is at stake is a sense of protection, secureness and certainty. It is not only the need to be safe from the virus that is important, but it is also the feeling itself of safeness. That distinction is made with the help of all the digital devices mentioned before. However, the frontiers established by these technologies could be problematic themselves. There are varying degrees of care and surveillance for different subjects at different times and contexts.

In this pursue of certainty, who is left out? Who cannot walk inside the safe spaces? What does it mean for them? Is it justified in order to preserve the greater sense of secureness? Is it justified in order to preserve the health of the people inhabiting these spaces? What happens when there are mistakes?

In this new dichotomy between infected and non-infected. Should all infected be considered the same? Should all the non-infected be treated the same? Who is at risk? And who embodies the risk itself?