China to use a “vaccine passport” to track COVID health of citizens

vaccine passport, china covid
© Xing Wang

China have created a digital vaccine passport that documents if a person has taken the COVID vaccine or been sick with the virus recently – a clean record will be needed for citizens to enter grocery shops

The new vaccine passport introduced for Chinese citizens will be contained on the social messaging app, WeChat. This digital document will allow individuals to travel across the border, enter grocery shops and move freely in society.

Passport will promote “world economic recovery”, says spokesman

The document will also exist in a paper form, outside of the app often monitored by Chinese law enforcement authorities. The document was implemented on Monday (8 March), and is not currently mandatory.

Only citizens of China will receive these documents for now.

A foreign ministry spokesman commented that the vaccine passport is being utilised “to help promote world economic recovery and facilitate cross-border travel.”

The digital version of the vaccine passport has an encrypted QR code, which would enable authorities to see an individual’s medical history. It is understood that other countries will be able to access the medical records of Chinese travellers via this technology, but it is currently unknown which countries have already begun to work with China on this new strategy.

A smart use of technology or an expanded surveillance system?

The use of technology to track outbreaks is supported by a study that examined how Twitter whistle-blowers in China spoke out about hotspots, before they became well-known areas of infection. However, this kind of analysis draws from publicly available information posted by users, and does not broach any right to privacy.

Dr Li Wenliang was the whistle-blower who raised early awareness of COVID-19 in Wuhan. While authorities reported mysterious pneumonia cases in December 2019, he found a different story.

In a report, he saw that the virus was some kind of SARS. In seeing a disparity in the truth, Li circulated the document to his friends. This report leaked from his closed circle, drawing the attention of Wuhan police – who then enacted punitive measures against him for “false comments”.

He died on 7 February, 2020, by contracting COVID-19 from a patient. Five more doctors at that hospital would be dead by June.

Pandemic isolation and democratic regression?

A human rights organisation, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe today raised concerns about the impact on democracy via Government policies created to track and fight COVID-19. For some activists across the world, this period of pandemic isolation has resulted in less exposure and fewer witnesses – leading to an increase in silencing techniques that make it difficult to continue working against hostile policies. 

Ed O’Donovan, head of protection at Frontline Defenders, commented on the migration of activism to the online sphere: “Human Rights Defenders who turn to insecure tools in order to continue their work, unfortunately in some cases are especially at risk because the authorities often know about technical vulnerabilities and will try to target Human Rights Defenders.”

The UK and EU are currently working on their own versions of a vaccine passport, in the hopes that both economies could be supported by the possibility of international travel. Israel have created their own system, while they lead in the world’s vaccination race and face an imminent return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.


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