And for the more than 20 million people who live in or visit Beijing, the capital, there is an additional concern: a popup that can randomly appear on your phone to disrupt all your plans.
As of 2020, China launched 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 places or take public transport. As part of China’s strict zero-covid policy, the system has persisted, and some of the once-lauded features that kept deaths relatively low in the country now feel more burdensome than beneficial to its citizens. (Most covid apps from other countries have been suspended. We documented them all in 2020.)
The pop-up window, 弹窗, is an additional complicated layer that Beijing added to its tracing system. This covid mobile app window will not disappear unless the user immediately takes a PCR test. It gives extensive instructions on what to do under the heading “friendly reminders”, but it’s not that friendly. It hides a user’s QR code so that it cannot be scanned, thus denying people access to almost everywhere in China. In some cases, it only takes one day of a PCR test to make the window disappear; other times, people may be asked to self-quarantine at home for seven days or more.
I have friends all over China, and I’ve seen a lot of them complain about this this year. “I went for a PCR test to solve the pop-up problem, but the location of the test turned out to be a high-risk area, so I was asked to quarantine at home for 14 days” , a friend wrote in April. The details may differ, but they all agree on the particular threat: no one knows why they’re getting the pop-up or when they’ll get it, and there’s no way to prepare for it.
Officially, the Beijing municipal government says there are several reasons people have a pop-up: you’ve been to a city with recent covid cases; you just went abroad; you have been in the same “time and space” with someone exposed to covid; or you have not had a PCR test within 72 hours of buying fever or cough medicine.
But the problem is, while it’s presented as a high-tech pandemic solution, the app’s risk identification mechanism tends to cast a wider net than necessarywith no explanation as to why the popup appears, which often leaves people confused and stuck in covid limbo.
This is what happened to Flora Yuan, a 28-year-old resident of Beijing. He first got the pop-up earlier this year when he was walking outside his office building; he was immediately barred from re-entering. “After the pop-up, you’d still be able to walk down the street, but you’d need a QR code to enter anywhere, a park, a restaurant or a store,” he told me recently.