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China: Citizens Must Obtain Green Health Code to Board Flights Returning to China

(July 9, 2020) On April 7, 2020, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the General Administration of Customs jointly issued an announcement requiring Chinese citizens returning home from 26 countries to obtain a green health code before boarding flights. The rule aims to reduce the cross-border spread of COVID-19, according to the announcement.

The 26 countries are Italy, the U.S., Spain, Germany, Iran, France, South Korea, Switzerland, the U.K., the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Denmark, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Philippines, and Thailand. Russia was added to the list on April 15, 2020.

According to the CAAC announcement, which remains in force and does not specify an ending date, Chinese citizens returning from these countries are required to download a Wechat mini app named “health code app (international version)” and submit their personal identification information, health status, and recent travel history through the app. The specified data must be submitted every 24 hours for at least 14 consecutive days immediately prior to boarding flights to China. Those failing to do so cannot board the flights, and anyone reporting false information will face legal consequences.

Data Privacy Concerns

During the current COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has used color-based health code systems to control people’s movements and curb the spread of the coronavirus. Citizens with a green code can move freely, while those with a red code are quarantined for 14 days. In many cities, people without the green code are not able to board public transportation or enter public places. Privacy experts have also warned about the leakage and abuse of personal data associated with the health code apps and have urged Chinese authorities to make sure the health code apps meet data privacy principles.

On April 29, 2020, Chinese regulators released a series of national guidelines for health code apps, which specify requirements for the collection, processing, and use of personal health information. Under the guidelines, health codes must be encrypted and stored using an algorithm satisfying the requirements for national password management. Personal health information services and apps must obtain the express consent or authorized consent of users when collecting data, and must keep the private content confidential. The guidelines, however, are recommended guidelines that lack the force of law.

Screenshots of the international version of the health code app suggest that the app is operated by the Department of Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the technical support of Tencent, the Chinese tech company that owns Wechat.

Travel Restrictions

Although the CAAC announcement emphasizes data reporting, it may effectively hinder citizens stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic from returning to China. Under this rule, only people who have obtained a green health code bearing an airplane symbol can board the flights. The CAAC announcement does not make it clear who will be assigned such a code. According to information provided by Chinese consulates in the U.S., obtaining this code appears to require not only satisfying the 14-day data-submitting requirement, but also not having a temperature above 37.3°C (99 °F), typical COVID-19 symptoms, a positive test, or contact with any confirmed case in the past 14 days. Any mistake made by the app user when submitting data may also result in a red code, thereby requiring the person to cancel or reschedule the flight and restart the data reporting for another 14 days.

Many Chinese students are reportedly “trapped abroad” due to cancellation of flights and extremely expensive flight tickets during the current pandemic. According to the New York Times, the Chinese government has restricted international flights and told its expatriates to remain where they are so as not to bring the virus back into the country. The government estimated that among the 1.6 million Chinese students studying overseas, about 1.42 million were still abroad as of April 2, 2020.

On March 29, 2020, the CAAC adopted the so-called “five-one policy” to cap international flights flying to China. The policy was adjusted in June to allow U.S. airlines to resume limited flights to China. As a result of this policy, according to a China Briefing article, the number of international flights since then has dropped 90%, and only around 20 international flights can land on Chinese soil each day.

The government has suspended entry into China for most foreigners holding Chinese visas or residence permits since March 28, 2020, requiring them to apply for a new visa on the basis of special reasons, such as necessary economic, trade, scientific, and technological activities or emergency humanitarian needs. China has also implemented strict mandatory testing and quarantines on international arrivals during the current coronavirus pandemic.