Beware: 10 Scams in China To Watch Out For
What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of 10 scams in China that are recently trending on social media or in China’s newspapers, victimising hundreds of people every day.
Also see our 2018 Top 8 Scams in China list!
PAYING A HIGH PRICE FOR UNIVERSITY
1. College Entrance Scam
Recently, Weibo netizens and Chinese media have been reporting on College Entrance Enrollment Scams (高考招生骗局): “Mr. Lu from Anhui always hoped his son would attend a good university,” Anhui Daily writes: “but his grades were not ideal. This is when Mr. Zhou appeared, who introduced himself as an official from an academic institution with the right means to make sure Mr. Lu’s son would be admitted to Hefei University of Technology, but he needed money for it.”
Worried about his son’s future, and fully trusting, Mr. Lu invested 125.000 RMB (over 20.000 US dollar) to get his son enrolled. Because his son initially received a (fake) admission letter from the university, the Lu family did not immediately discover they were scammed. When they did, their money was gone, and the son was not registered at any university at all.
The Lu family is not the only one to get victimised by this scam. Around this time of year, the results of the annual College Entrance Exams are released. Prospective students and their family feverishly look to get admitted to a good university. But because it is all about the grades, the prospects look grim for those who did not get a good score on their exam. This makes them vulnerable victims for these kinds of scams. “This time of year is the peek of all kinds of criminal activities related to the College Entrance Exams,” Anhui Daily writes: “Students and their parents should not be fooled.”
BLINDED BY JEALOUSY
2. “I Am Your Husband’s Mistress” Scam
An incoming message on your phone says: “Hi, I am your husband’s mistress. I love him and want to marry him. You can see our picture for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”
The message is a shock to many women, who do not hesitate to immediately click the link provided in the text message. Unknowingly, by clicking the link, their phone gets infected with a trojan horse virus. Many Chinese have installed apps on their phone such as Alipay (Chinese equivalent to Paypal). The virus enables scammers to access private information, and transfer money from their victim’s accounts.
So how do scammers know the person they send a message to is a married woman? Actually, they don’t. By sending the same message to as many people as possible, they enhance their chances of sending it to those that are female and married – vulnerable to clicking the link in the text.
Similarly, scammers also send out messages telling people that their daughter is a prostitute, providing them with a link for pictures as (non-existent) proof [one of our female Harbin friends was called by her father in the middle of the night, worried sick about his daughter].
Another version of this scam is the message from the school administration, telling parents to click the link to see their child’s latest report card. Scammers will even say they are their children’s English or maths teacher, boosting the chances of parents clicking the link provided.
The only way to handle these messages is to immediately delete them, without clicking the link attached. If in doubt, call school/daughter/husband to verify (although in some odd cases, the latter may happily say it is a scam when it is actually not..).
NOT MY CUP OF TEA
3. The Tea Ceremony Scam
The tea ceremony scam has been a common scam in China for years. It is aimed at tourists who are new to China, and are eager to experience something typically ‘Chinese’. Although the tea scammers are also active in Beijing (report), they famously operate around Shanghai’s People’s Park.
The scam usually involves two or three nice-looking young ladies who present themselves as “students” when approaching western tourists. What starts as small talk, soon leads to the girls inviting the tourist(s) to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, where they will taste about eight different teas within fifteen minutes or so in a closed room in a backend alley teahouse. The tourists are led to believe that the tea that is served is inexpensive, but will later be presented with a bill of 650-2000 RMB (100-330 US dollar) or even more.
Tourists often do not even realise they have been scammed until the very end. Even a booking.com manager from New Zealand, though an experienced traveler, recently was scammed by the tea ceremony.
HANGING WITH THE WRONG CROWD
4. The WeChat Group Scam
WeChat (in Chinese: Weixin) is the most popular app in China. It is not just a way to connect to friends individually or by group chat, it is also an app that is used for making phone calls, ordering taxi’s, and doing money transactions. (For more on Weixin, read: China’s Weixin Revolution.) For many Chinese, the app has become an essential tool for everyday communication.
Recently, it has become more and more common for people to be asked to join a group of friends they do not know on Weixin, People’s Daily writes. Because these groups have names such as ‘finances’, or ‘entertainment’, many people agree to add themselves to the group, as it is quite normal to ‘follow’ various groups on Weixin. After doing so, they learn the group consists of hundreds of people posting spam, emoticons and vile words. When asking to exit the group, they soon discover they cannot withdraw.
The group also cannot be set to ‘do not disturb’ mode, making every message that pops up visible on your phone screen. Somebody in the group will then send you a message asking if you want to be removed from the group. If so, you will have to give him a so-called ‘red envelope’ (红包): a payment worth 8,88 RMB (1,5 US dollars). After paying, you will be removed from the groups within a couple of minutes.
Although victims of this scam will only lose a little bit of cash, this is now happening on such a large scale that these scammers are making large amounts of money. Tencent, the creator of WeChat, has responded that this specific scam is only happening to IOS users due to a software incompatibility. Users of iOs and WeChat are advised to update both their WeChat and their iOS version.
KEEPING THE DOCTOR AWAY
5. Beijing’s Hospital Scalpers
So-called hospital scalpers have been a problem in China for a long time. Hospital scalpers (医托) are people who earn their money by enticing people to obtain medical care at a certain hospital or clinic. As described by medical journalist Michael Woodhead from China Medical News (2014):
“The scalper is friendly and solicitous initially, advising the patients and family members that the official clinic is expensive and extremely busy and the service is poor. Sometimes they say the doctor on duty has a poor reputation or that the clinic is dirty and has poor hygiene. They then tell the victim that there is a better clinic nearby where they have connections and can get a quick appointment.The scalper then personally escorts the victim to the nearby clinic, where the ‘doctor’ and staff do many unnecessary expensive tests and prescribes some very common and cheap medicine but charges a high price.”
A hospital scalper in action at Beijing West Station (Sina 2015).
Earlier this month, Sina News reported about hundreds of people being victimised by one group of scalpers that mainly operate in and around Beijing’s West Station, Jishuitan Hospital, Fu Wai Hospital, Peking Union Medical Hospital Clinic and the 301 Hospital. The group, consisting of around sixty scammers, are active every day from early morning ’til afternoon, looking for inexperienced patients who come to Beijing to see a doctor, and are either just arriving, or are waiting in one of the long lines at the hospital.
The scammers wear costumes and look like professional staff members, asking people about their health problems and then referring them to the centrally located Baidetang Clinic near Beijing’s Pinganli Subway (Yude hutong).
According to the article, one patient, coming from Xi’an, was waiting at the Union Medical Hospital when she was approached by a woman who informed about her medical problems. When the patient told the woman that she suffered from menstrual problems, the scammer told her that the specialist she needed was currently available at the qualified Baidetang Clinic. The patient, like many others who were victimised, ended up getting a short consult and some expensive medicine, spending 10.000 RMB (1630 US dollars). According to an undercover journalist, hospital scalpers receive 70% of the amount a patient spends at the clinic.
The Baidetang Clinic near Beijing’s Pinganli Subway Station (Sina 2015).
6. “Canceled Flight” Message
This year, multiple Chinese media and netizens reported about the “canceled flight scam” (航班取消骗局). After booking a flight, passengers receive a text message from a 400-number saying that there has been a change in their flight, or that the flight has been canceled. In order to get their money back, passengers have to provide their name, ID information and bank account number.
Later on, passengers will discover that money is taken from their bank account, and that the text message they received was fake.
Anqing News Centre advises passengers to be careful with 400-numbers. After receiving similar messages, people should always first check with the official customer information number of their airline.
7. Major Bank Scam
Over the last year, several large-scale bank scams made the headlines in China. Although putting money in the bank is generally considered the safest option to protect one’s money, many Chinese netizens say that they are losing trust in China’s banking system because large amounts of people’s savings that were kept in state-owned banks have gone missing.
The scammers involved are people who work at the bank. They attract depositors by offering them high interests. Instead of annual interest rates of 2–5%, these employees will tell depositors that they can give them interests of 10%, up to 20% or even higher. In such scams, the depositors often have to sign the terms of service, which include that they have to refrain from checking the account. After the swindle is exposed, the bank usually states that it is the client’s responsibility for believing such high interests; even if the scam took place within the bank itself and clients assumed they were dealing with an honest employee.
Many netizens have expressed their astonishment over this scam. One Weibo netizen said: “If we keep money in the bank, the bank should be responsible for our savings. Since the scammer is an employee of the bank, the bank should take the responsibility for his behavior.”
The only way to avoid this scam: if it is too good to be true, it usually is. Double check with other bank staff, and properly read the terms of service. A bank can never make a client refrain from checking their own accounts.
8. Landlord Message Scam
A common scam, similar to the ‘mistress’ text message and the ‘canceled flight’ one, is a message from your landlord, who says that he has changed phone numbers, and that this month’s rent needs to be transferred to the account of his wife or another bank number.
In the end, it turns out that this message is fake – but meanwhile, many people already transferred the money to the wrong account. They discover they’re duped when they receive a message from their actual landlord who has not received the month’s rent.
These kind of text messages are sent out randomly. Because the message is send out to many people, there are always those who actually need to pay their rent and are used to communicating with their landlord in this way.
NO HAPPY END
9. Massage Parlor Scam
Like with the Tea Ceremony scam, Massage Parlor scammers are focused on western tourists – men in specific. Basically, the scam involves somebody talking you into a massage on the streets. The ‘normal’ massage soon turns out to be a bit more erotic, and before you know it, the massage parlor big boss arrives, the door closes, and you have to pay up a large sum of money. As this tourist describes on Tripadvisor:
“I was offered a foot massage in Shanghai then was taken to a building where a different type of massage was offered on the body. I was forced to pick a girl then it took 10 minutes before we were done. Before the massage they told me about 300 RMB ($40.00) but after the massage a big guy walked in the room with 2 other guys and gave me a bill for $4200.00 which included room rent. I was shocked. They also knew which hotel I stayed.”
A host of a Dutch undercover show gets scammed in Shanghai (SBS6).
It is a common scam, especially in Shanghai city centre, that could end up becoming very costly.
Similarly, there is the KTV scam where people will lure tourists into nightclubs or karaoke and overcharge them on drinks. Avoiding these scams is simple: just do not trust anyone who approaches you on the street to take you to a club or salon.
NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS
10. China’s Pyramid Schemes (chuanxiao)
China’s ‘chuanxiao‘ scheme arguably is the most large-scale and psychological scam of this list. So-called ‘multi-level marketing’ (传销) or ‘pyramid schemes’ are quite commonplace in China, especially in certain provinces (Anhui, Hunan). New members are always is introduced to these schemes through old friends, former classmates, or relatives.
Chuanxiao are almost like cults, where people get trained in how to trick their Chinese friends into joining them. As explained in this blog by Nao, chuanxiao schemes are not about selling products, but about getting more people to join. The money people spend to join the group goes to the person above them, and the people above them. People are convinced (brainwashed?) they will eventually become millionaires if they stick to the group long enough.
People in chuanxiao live as a community, and collaborate on how to bond with new people and get them to join – and get their money into the system. Friends are usually invited to come over from other provinces for a business opportunity, or as a holiday, and are then taken into the group. Chuanxiao are psychological games, where people often only realise they have been scammed when it is already too late.
Know more scams you would like to share? Please leave your comment in the comment section below, or email us.
By Manya Koetse
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Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress
Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.
It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.
The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.
In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.
Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).
During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.
This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.
We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.
1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化
This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).
While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.
This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.
The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)
The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).
2. The Central Mission 中心任务
The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”
Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).
3. Top Priority 第一要务
The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.
“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).
This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.
4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排
In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.
The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.
5. The Road to Follow 必由之路
At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.
The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:
– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance
6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国
In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.
‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.
7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主
This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.
This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.
This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.
8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化
‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.
Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’
At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.
The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.
9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度
This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.
Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.
‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).
10. Focus 着力点
Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.
Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.
Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.
In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).
Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.
Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).
Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.
By Manya Koetse
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“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems
The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.
There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.
‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’
China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.
A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM
In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.
Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.
Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).
Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.
The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).
The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).
These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.
Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.
By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.
LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND
Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.
Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.
Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).
“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”
On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.
In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.
In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.
“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.
RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE
Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).
Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”
One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.
Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.
“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).
The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”
“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”
A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?
But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).
Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.
On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”
“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”
The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result. The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’
Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”
Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.
As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”
“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”
“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”
By Manya Koetse
1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”
2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.
References (other sources linked to inside the text)
Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.
China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].
Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].
JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在？专家：国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].
Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].
Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.
Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].
Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.
Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.
This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.
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July 9, 2015 at 10:23 pm
In Taiwan there have been scams like a stranger calling you to tell you your child has been abducted. They will even play a tape to ‘prove’ this is indeed the case, and then tell you to hand over a certain amount of money. As with all strange messages/communication, always double check!
July 9, 2015 at 10:32 pm
Also I’ve heard of set ups of men intimidating women, and a black cab coming in between as a ‘rescuer’ who turns out to be part of the plot. When the woman goes in the cab, she will be robbed.
July 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm
“taxi’s” should be “taxis”
July 10, 2015 at 7:44 pm
The 100 yuan note trick: you pay with a 100 note at a corner shop, the owner receives it, swaps it for a fake one under the counter. He then calls you back, telling you that you gave him fake money and he wants a different 100 note.
July 11, 2015 at 5:16 am
I missed the banknote teller machine scam. Say, you pay 1200 RMB, 12 notes of 100 RMB. They put it in the manipulated teller machine and it shows you gave only 11 notes and you need to give one more.
July 9, 2016 at 4:54 pm
Many thanks for sharing Manya! Some of these scams are really creative and it’s scary imagining how many people are being scammed by them. Thankfully, for travellers/foreigners in China, they are less likely to face some of these scams, but they are not spared by the many other scams such as the one you have raised such as the tea ceremony scam and massage parlour scam. From research (http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-china/), some other scams to look out for are fake money, fake taxis, fake jade, fake traditional chinese medicine shops and even fake bus stops!
August 13, 2016 at 10:53 pm
What about red mercury scam in China ?
December 13, 2016 at 4:10 pm
Does anyone know about Gold market scam seems many people are being targeted to invest all savings into spot markets
January 13, 2017 at 8:53 am
I got experienced it once on 10th Jan 2017. The lady (seems attractive) been talking to me about it and telling me why choose gold market instead of stocks. She send me a website called goldunitedltd.com and saying it’s under strict hong kong laws and regulations so it can’t be a fraud. She will slowly ice-break with you and then she would say normally she would not do this but she can help you to open a VIP account but you have to keep it a secret as it’s against company’s policy. 50k usd for VIP and just let her know how much I want/can invest and she will help me anytime. 8-10% ROI every month. Well, I’m not a very good investor but that kind of ROI just based on gold binary options, is a high chance fraud. I did not put my money in anyway.
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January 5, 2018 at 11:35 am
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May 3, 2018 at 1:32 am
One wouldn’t really think much of this, all I really wanted to do was invest and be part of it but the way I was lied by this brokers was terrible, to easily take money from all in the name of investment and when I wanted to make withdrawals every single attempt was fruitless with constant hassle to invest more I really can’t say more than I have already said. I would really consider myself to be one of the very few lucky ones as I was able to have my funds recovered from this scam Binary option brokers, although it was through unethical means as far I am concerned but what can I care after how my hard-earned funds where taken from me, these guys are the best in less than 7days all my funds including bonuses had been recovered, If your broker lost your funds trading Binary options Geminihacks.com are more than able to get your funds back without any traces best of luck people.
October 27, 2018 at 12:13 pm
There are tons of scams all over the internet and in person. I have been in this situation, after falling for the rampant investment scam scourging everywhere. I was devastated but got referred to a firm that helped out to get over 1million HKD back from them.
You can reach out to the consultant who helped
maxgale08 atgeemail dotcom
January 20, 2019 at 1:40 am
So glad I am never going to travel to China. But still nice to know, so I can watch out for scammers here in the states and online.
June 12, 2019 at 10:28 am
Recently I met a Chinese lady in Tinder. She seems to be nice and we chatted for quite some time (almost 1 week). She seems very genuine, telling about her life, what she do, her struggles..etc. She send picture of herself and say we both get along well. Unknowingly along the line she did mention about investing on stocks & forex, even show me her statement how much she earn from it. She said her cousin are financial expert and the one that give the tip to her. I find it bit odd but I believe at first. Now after 1 week of nice chatting, the critical point question came in. She said since she making so much, she can help me. Why don’t I setup an account (she gave me a link) and when she receive latest news then I can follow to buy in. Let’s make money together…
I am typically very careful with all these things, especially when it comes to money. What I am so sad was that I thought I would have a nice lady as a friend (or maybe more) but my defense instinct kicks in pretty quick when she mention about the investment. I am sad cos I invested my time to chat with her not knowing is all a SCAM! 🙁
September 3, 2019 at 3:32 pm
One of my nephews was applying to China for further studies and guy name Lee W. Yong was contacted. He promised that he can get him in to well reputed university, Peking University, with monthly stipends and scholarship. He had put his advertising in WeChat. He called his company China Student Consulting.
Then he starts to demand money for the process. His parents transferred the money with the hope for their son’s better future.
Once they sent him all the demanded fee, he started to beg for more. He said the customs office is asking money to send the documents. You could tell that he was lying. Once his family started to demand for proof of their son’s admission. He would argue that everything is ready to ship and waiting for demanded extra money. So far he took 6300RMB. And when his parent admanantly asked for proof, he blocked them in WeChat account. Now he is out of reach enjoying his loot of somebody’s hard earned money.