Lockdown city Xian suspends data chief after Covid-19 tracing app failures

Residents queue up for Covid-19 tests in Xian, which remained in lockdown.
PHOTO: Xinhua

The Chinese city of Xian has suspended its top official in charge of big data after the system powering the local health code app, a critical tool in China’s zero-Covid strategy, crashed for a second time.

On Wednesday morning, Xian’s Communist Party committee announced the decision to suspend Liu Jun, director and party chief of the Xian Big Data Resources Administration, for “dereliction of duty”.

The northwestern city has experienced one of China’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks since the pandemic ’s early stages two years ago. A spread of cases that began in mid-December has prompted a full lockdown of the city and its 13 million residents for the past two weeks.

Across China, 41 new symptomatic local infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Wednesday, 35 of them in Xian and four in Henan. This was the lowest daily tally in Xian since Dec 19, and brought the city’s total number of symptomatic cases to 1,793.

On top of widespread complaints from Xian residents about insufficient food and other essential supplies, the city’s mobile phone health code app has crashed twice in the past two weeks, disrupting contact tracing and testing.

After the first breakdown, local officials apologised and promised to improve system maintenance.

Having a health code, which indicates a person’s Covid-19 status via an app, is compulsory in China and must be shown to enter venues or to travel. Cities and the rural areas they govern have their own unique codes.

A resident of Xian’s Yanta district said the system crashed when Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan arrived for an inspection of testing in their residential compound with Liu Guozhong, the party boss in Shaanxi province, of which Xian is the capital.

“All we see is a blank page,” said the resident, who declined to be named because of the matter’s sensitivity. “I think the top officials must have noticed, because the health workers could not scan health codes for residents before their tests. How awkward.”

Wang Yan, who lives in Gaoxin district, said many residents were worried because they could not update their health record after completing their daily Covid-19 test.

“All residents in the estate now need to take two tests every day,” she said. “We will be given a green code if the test results are negative.

“When the health codes were blank, many people panicked because a green code is essential for them to go anywhere and represents their hope that the lockdown will end soon.”

According to official media, the chief engineer of the industry and information technology ministry, Han Xia, visited Shaanxi last week to give detailed instructions to staff on how to improve emergency response and prevent another system crash.

Xian on Sunday dismissed two district officials in Yanta, which has had the most Covid-19 cases in the city.

The party’s disciplinary commission has been investigating the grassroots handling of the outbreak, with 26 officials facing disciplinary action last month, including 10 accused of allowing the outbreak to spread from a quarantine hotel after cleaning staff contracted Covid-19.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.