Locals say China used health tracker to control crowds

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Angry bank customers who traveled to a central Chinese city to collect their savings from struggling rural banks have been stopped by a health app on their cellphones.

Chinese residents are required to have the health app, which displays a code indicating their health status, including possible exposure to COVID-19. A code green is required to use public transport and enter places such as offices, restaurants and shopping malls. But some depositors at banks in central Henan province said their codes had turned red to stop them.

The incident sparked a national debate about how a tool designed for public health was appropriated by political forces to stifle controversy.

The problem started in April, when customers discovered they couldn’t access online banking. They tried to report the banks and get their money back, but got no response.

Thousands of people who had opened accounts at the six rural banks in Henan and Anhui provinces began trying to withdraw their savings after media reports that the head of the banks’ parent company was on the run. The majority shareholder of several banks, Sun Zhenfu, was wanted by the authorities for “serious financial crimes”, according to the official media The Paper.

Authorities likely feared a run on the banks, not uncommon with smaller banks in China that tend to be less stable than their larger institutional counterparts.

Customers across the country were connected to rural banks through financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, smaller banks have been selling their customers financial products such as fixed deposit accounts with higher interest rates, which require people to deposit their money for a set amount of time, according to Sixth Tone, the publication sister of The Paper.

Unable to resolve the issue online, customers took to the road earlier this week to demand government action at the Henan province office of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou. But after arriving in the city, they found they couldn’t go far.

In a since-deleted account on social media app WeChat, a woman named Ai said that shortly after arriving at a hotel in Zhengzhou, she was interrogated by a group of police officers who asked her why she was here. She replied that she wanted to withdraw money from the bank. Shortly after, she discovered that her health code had turned red even though she had tested negative for COVID-19 in the previous 48 hours.

She was immediately taken to a quarantine hotel by a pandemic prevention officer.

Sixth Tone interviewed over a dozen people who said their health codes turned red after scanning a QR code in the city.

In China, places like train stations and grocery stores have scannable QR codes at their entrances, recording people’s presence for contact tracing during the pandemic. When people are considered at risk for COVID-19, their codes turn different colors which indicate restrictions such as mandatory quarantines.

With a red health code, it is impossible to go to public places, or even to board a train.

A bank customer, who gave her last name as Liu, said she saw many people reporting that their health codes turned red after arriving in Zhengzhou.

Liu, who did not travel to Zhengzhou herself, said she tested the code change after others reported it in their shared group chat. After scanning the QR code of a photo someone had shared in the group, Liu discovered that his health code had also turned red.

Another bank customer told Sixth Tone that he received a code red after scanning at Zhengzhou train station and was taken into custody. A few hours after the police took him out of Zhengzhou, his health code turned green.

Jiaedao, a social media account run by the Communist Party’s main newspaper, criticized Henan authorities in an op-ed on Tuesday.

“Let’s be frank, no matter which department or individual instigated it, the arbitrary use of epidemic prevention and control measures for ‘social governance’ or ‘maintaining stability’ should be strictly held accountable,” the editorial said.

An official from the Henan Pandemic Control Committee said in response to Jiakedao that authorities were investigating reports of health codes turning red.

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