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Hong Kong to get China-style COVID-19 app, sparking fears of totalitarian control

Hong Kong will impose a China-style COVID-19 app on the city’s seven million residents, sparking fears of ever-increasing state control over the movements of individuals.

The city will start putting electronic bracelets on those who test positive for the virus from July 15, health secretary Lo Chung-mau told a news conference on Monday.

In China, red codes banning movement in public places have already been used to target people for political reasons that have little to do with their health.

Chief executive John Lee said the city needed to “be realistic” about the kind of risks it could be facing, citing average daily infections of around 3,000 with hospitalizations rising rapidly.

“That is why we are thinking of designing methods that will be able to allow us to react more quickly, to respond more precisely, and at the same time, allow more people to be not so restrictive in their activities,” Lee told journalists on Tuesday.

He added: “There may be some misinformation which we will need to address very quickly so that everybody knows what we are doing.”

Health secretary Lo said the LeaveHomeSafe app would be updated soon, and would require people to register using a verified form of ID.

“We must do real-name registration, so we can mainly use it for identification rather than tracking,” Lo said. “We need to identify high-risk people to ensure that they don’t endanger the health of other citizens, especially high-risk groups.”

Lo said a person’s health code would turn red, preventing them from going to public places, on confirmation of a COVID-19 positive result, while new arrivals to the city would be given an amber code, restricting entry to certain places deemed high risk.

A Hong Kong resident surnamed Mak said the app will function as a tool for those in power to monitor and control citizens.

“It divides people into different categories, and people with a red code are denied the right to use any facilities or services, including withdrawing money from the bank,” Mak said.

“Is it an exaggeration to think that one day, you could also get a red code if you are a dissident? … I think the government is easing into total control.”

A Hong Kong resident surnamed Liu said she has similar concerns.

“If they do this with the health code, then I will worry about being monitored,” she said. “What’s worse is that it seems they can integrate their system with that of mainland China.”

“They don’t seem to think Hong Kong has any special privileges,” Liu said.

A resident of the central Chinese provicne of Hubei surnamed Gao said he has been subjected to China’s health code app for two years now.

“A red code means you stay isolated at home, and the yellow code means you can’t take the bus or go to a shopping mall,” Gao said, adding that the app is being used for “stability maintenance” as well as COVID-19 prevention.

Several Chinese rights defenders have had their health code turn red or stop working for no reason, preventing them from going to Beijing, Shanghai or other places.

Rights lawyer Xie Yang said his health code turned red after he made plans to visit the mother jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, against the wishes of the Changsha police.

Hong Kong commentator Sang Pu said depositors at rural banks in Henan province had also been given red codes when they planned to protest a ban on withdrawals of their savings.

“The so-called infected people have no freedom to go anywhere, which is terrible,” Sang said. “Today they can decide that you can’t go everywhere because of COVID, and tomorrow they may decide that you can’t go anywhere because of a disease such as a cold.”

“Then it could be that you have a mental health problem and can’t go anywhere … They want to act in line with the wishes of the CCP, rather than considering science, truth or rationality.”

The LeaveHomeSafe app is already required to access any government-controlled premises, and is currently based on an individual’s vaccination status.

Meanwhile, authorities in Shanghai have resumed local lockdowns, barricading some residents into their apartment buildings, amid a rise in the highly transmissible omicron BA5 variant of COVID-19.

Photos and video clips uploaded to social media by Shanghai residents showed steel sheeting in place at the entrances of alleyways to prevent people from restricted areas from leaving.

In one video, the move prompted an angry altercation between COVID-19 enforcement officials and residents.

“Why are you blocking this?” a resident asks. “Because we are managing this community,” the official replies.

“Where are you sending us?” the resident says. “We’re not here to argue with you,” the official replies.

A Shanghai resident surnamed Liang said her residential compound was locked down for two days because one resident was identified as a close contact of an infected person.

“Our community was closed for a couple of days because there was a close contact,” she said.

“I heard that they have to go ahead with restrictions because this [variant] is more damaging than the last one,” Liang said. “Wherever there are cases or contacts, they will lock down the building.”

The return to partial lockdowns comes after Shanghai ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Li Qiang announced on June 25 that the “battle to defend Shanghai has been won.”

Similar restrictions are in place in the northwestern city of Lanzhou, where authorities have told people not to leave their homes unless necessary, and implemented three waves of mass, compulsory COVID-19 testing.

“They don’t call it lockdown any more, but temporary restrictions,” Lanzhou resident Ma Guoqiang told RFA. “At midnight, they put steel gates outside our community gates, and locked them from the side facing the street.”

“This time it’s for at least seven days,” Ma said. “Takeout is allowed, but dine-in is not. We are all cooking and eating for ourselves at home.”

He said the restrictions had scuppered the Lanzhou Trade and Investment Fair, prompting many potential investors to turn around and leave after just two days of the event.

“A lot of people turned around and left as soon as they got to Lanzhou,” Ma said. “They arrived at the train station, saw the situation, then bought tickets and left.”

The city reported 28 new asymptomatic cases in Lanzhou, with more than 2,000 contacts, on Monday.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.