At the end of August, I arrived in Shanghai on a trip back from London. After two weeks of quarantine, I emerged on a smoggy Monday morning thrilled for my first taste of freedom, until I realized that I had made a careless but dire mistake: I forgot to bring my mobile SIM card.
Without my phone number to verify my identity and confirm that I had followed proper Covid-19 precautions, the health code I had been assigned by authorities stayed red. The day I left quarantine, I tried to check into a hotel in Shanghai. When the man at the front desk saw my code, he eyed me warily, as if I had a scarlet letter etched onto my forehead, and only allowed me to check in after scrutinizing my physical quarantine papers. That night, when I met up for dinner with a friend and showed him my code, he recoiled. “Ugh. Please put that thing away,” he said, only half-jokingly. “It makes me anxious just to look at it.” We were in a city where there had been no cases of local transmission in months, and as a young, tech-savvy, white-collar worker with resources and workarounds, I was luckier than most. Yet in that moment, I felt like a pariah: unregistered and unrecognized on the outskirts of society.
In China, your phone number is your identity. Over the last two decades, the country leapfrogged from a relatively antiquated technological infrastructure straight into the mobile internet, which is now deeply embedded in every facet of life. By the time I returned to live in Beijing in 2018, bright-yellow share bikes were all over the streets, and savvy beggars panhandled with QR codes. My phone was suddenly my wallet, my transportation ticket, and my source of nourishment, entertainment, and socializing. With it, I could order dinner and pay rent, browse through queer dating prospects, and get my genes sequenced. Without it, I could barely function. More than anywhere else in the world, in China, one’s digital and physical selves are conflated. An online presence confirms an offline existence.
Since the onset of the pandemic, this has been pushed even further. This past February, in an attempt to control the virus’s spread, the government assigned every smartphone owner in China a health QR code. First trialed in the city of Hangzhou, the system launched nationwide on the popular platforms WeChat and Alipay, which critics have compared to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborating with Amazon and Facebook to track the health of all their users. To obtain a code, you have to register your name, travel history, identification, and phone number. This information is then correlated with the tracking data on your device, to assess if you’ve had contact with potential Covid-19 patients. Then, you are assigned a color — green, yellow, or red — which determines whether you will be allowed to move freely, enter buildings, and take public transportation.
As the Chinese internet has evolved within the boundaries of the Great Firewall, I’ve come to view the space as a walled garden. The metaphor is not mine but stolen from Lu Wei, the former deputy head of the Chinese government’s propaganda department. Lu once proclaimed the country’s cyberspace as a “spiritual garden, which worships virtue and the good” (which could refer to anything from patriotism and pandas to filial piety) and condemns the “false, the bad, and the ugly” (hip-hop, tattoos, or Winnie the Pooh, for instance). Just as the imperial gardens of ancient China were carefully pruned spaces sealed off from the outside world, the country’s internet, firewalled from the global web, has become an isolated ecosystem, governed by an opaque and arbitrary set of rules.
In recent months, these garden walls have been upgraded to safeguard not only the “spiritual” but the physical health of inhabitants. And in the eyes of authorities, the two are increasingly one and the same. In May, proactive officials in Hangzhou proposed expanding the health code system and integrating it even more into daily life. Citizens would be assigned a health score between 0 and 100 that would fluctuate based on lifestyle choices: 15,000 daily steps could boost a score by 5 points, while 200 millimeters of baijiu (a noxious Chinese liquor) could mean a reduction of 1.5 points. In September, officials in the neighboring city of Suzhou followed suit, introducing plans for a “civility code” that would apply a similar rubric to activities, such as doing volunteer work and jaywalking. Both plans were quickly retracted in the wake of a public backlash, but the technology needed to implement them is already in place, and most crucially, so is the vision of this future world.
Today, to truly enter China is no longer a matter of simply swapping out a SIM card. To step into the garden is to inhabit another world, to hail a DiDi instead of an Uber, scroll through a pruned Weibo feed instead of an unruly Twitter one, date on Momo instead of Tinder, dance to a BTS hit on Douyin instead of a Megan Thee Stallion remix on TikTok. Given how inextricably entwined our offline selves are with our online personas, to live inside the garden requires the creation of a particular kind of identity. After all, our digital worlds do not simply reflect who we are: they shape that person. The Yi-Ling I am on Facebook is a different person from the Yi-Ling I am on WeChat (more distracted, more creative, much more cautious), with different habits, friends, and communities. When the headlines warn of a bifurcated internet — with China strengthening its Great Firewall and Secretary of State Pompeo urging the construction of a “Clean Fortress” around American data — it is important to remember that these divisions extend down to the intimate and the individual, each crack in cyberspace running deep into flesh and bone.
Having straddled the fault lines of two digital ecosystems all of my life, the division runs deep through my psyche. Who will I become in a digitally bifurcated world? Can these selves ever be reconciled? And beyond that, will it ever be possible to tell a more plural and expansive story of the global internet, one that can weave together strands of messy identities and frame a larger picture?
When I got my new SIM card in Beijing two days later, I felt wonderfully and troublingly whole again. I could hail a cab, get a haircut, have a box of fresh, imported kiwis delivered to my doorstep. I was both delighted by the world that opened up before me — limitless, seamless, and virus-free — and unnerved by the deal that I had made: data for convenience, privacy for safety. I was back in the garden, left to contemplate what I might gain, what more I might lose, and what I had already lost.