Residents say China has used the health tracker for crowd control

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Angry bank customers who went to a central China city to recover their savings from ailing rural banks were stopped by a health care app on their mobile phone.

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

The incident sparked a national debate on how a tool designed for public health was earmarked by political forces to quell controversy.

The problem started in April when customers found they couldn’t access online banking. They tried to sue the banks and get their money back, but they 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 the media reported 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 bank run, which is not uncommon with smaller banks in China tending to be less stable than their larger institutional counterparts.

Clients across the country were connected to rural banks through financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, small banks were selling financial products to customers 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 sister publication of The Paper.

Unable to resolve the issue online, customers decided earlier this week to seek government intervention at the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission’s Henan Province office in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou. But after arriving in the city, they found they couldn’t get far.

In an account deleted from the WeChat social media app, a woman named Ai said that shortly after checking into a hotel in Zhengzhou, she was questioned by a police group who asked her why she was there. She replied that she wanted to withdraw money from the bank. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that her health code had turned red even though she had had a negative COVID-19 test result in the previous 48 hours.

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

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

In China, places like train stations and grocery stores have QR codes to scan at their entrances, recording the presence of people to track contacts during the pandemic. When people are deemed to be at risk for COVID-19, their codes take on different colors indicating restrictions such as mandatory quarantines.

With a red health code, it’s impossible to go to any public place, or even board a train.

A bank customer, who gave his last name as Liu, said he saw that many people were reporting that their health codes had turned red after they arrived in Zhengzhou.

Liu, who did not go to Zhengzhou in person, said she tested the code change after others reported it in their shared group chat. After scanning the QR code from a photo someone shared in the group, Liu found that her health code had also turned red.

Another bank customer told Sixth Tone that he received a red code after he scanned at Zhengzhou Railway Station and was taken into police custody. A few hours after police officers forced him to leave Zhengzhou, his health code turned green.

Jiakedao, a social media account run by the Communist Party’s leading newspaper, criticized Henan authorities in an editorial on Tuesday.

“Let’s be honest, regardless of the department or individual who instigated it, the arbitrary use of epidemic prevention and control measures for” social governance “or” maintenance of stability “should be strictly held accountable,” says the editorial.

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

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