Residents say China has used a health tracker to control the crowd

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Angry bank customers traveling to a city in central China to extract their savings from troubled rural banks have been stopped by a health app on their mobile phone.

Chinese residents must have a health app that shows a code indicating their health status, including possible exposure to COVID-19. A green code is needed to use public transport and to enter places such as offices, restaurants and malls. But some bank depositors in central Henan said their codes were red to stop them.

The incident sparked a national debate over how political forces have appropriated a public health instrument to quell controversy.

The problem began in April when customers discovered they did not have access to online banking services. They tried to report to the banks and get their money back, but received no response.

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

Authorities are likely to fear bank leaks, which is not uncommon for smaller banks in China, which are usually less stable than their larger, institutional counterparts.

Customers from all over the country connected with rural banks through financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, small banks sold financial products to customers, such as fixed-rate accounts with higher interest rates, which require people to deposit their money for a period of time, according to Sixth Tone, a sister publication in The Paper.

Unable to resolve the issue online, customers earlier this week demanded action from the government at the Henan Province office of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission in the capital, Zhengzhou Province. But when they arrived in the city, they found that they could not go far.

In a post-deleted account on the social media app WeChat, a woman named Ai said that shortly after she checked into a hotel in Zhengzhou, she was questioned by a group of police officers who asked her why she was there. She replied that she wanted to withdraw money from the bank. Shortly afterwards, 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 quarantined hotel by a pandemic prevention worker.

Six Tons interviewed more than a dozen people who said their health codes had turned red after scanning a QR code in the city.

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

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

A bank client, who gave her last name as Liu, said she had seen many people report that their health codes had turned red after arriving in Zhengzhou.

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

Another bank customer told Sixth Tone that he received a red code after scanning the Zhengzhou station and was detained by police. Hours after police forced him to leave Zhengzhou, his health code turned green.

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

“Let’s be honest, no matter which department or individual instigated it, the arbitrary use of measures to prevent and control the epidemic for ‘social governance’ or ‘maintaining stability’ must be held accountable,” the statement said.

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

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