TAIPEI – Angry bank customers traveling to a city in central China trying to extract their savings from troubled rural banks were stopped by a common technology: QR code.
The QR code that residents must have must indicate a person’s health condition, such as whether they have COVID-19 or have been in close contact. In the central province of Henan, some Chinese found that the health code was used to enforce crowd control.
The incident sparked a national debate over how a public health instrument was misappropriated by political forces to quell controversy.
The problem began in April when customers found they did not have access to online banking services. They tried several times to report to the banks and get their money back, but received no response.
Thousands of people who have opened an account in one of the six rural banks scattered in the neighboring provinces of Henan and Anhui have begun trying to withdraw their savings after media reports that the head of the parent company was 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 these rural banks through national financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, small banks sold financial products to customers as fixed-rate accounts with higher interest rates, requiring people to keep their money for a period of time, according to Sixth Tone, the English-language sister publication of The Paper.
Unable to resolve the issue online, customers set out earlier this week to seek government action at the Chinese Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission’s Henan office in the capital, Zhengzhou province. But when they arrived in the city, they found that they could not go far.
In a post-deleted WeChat account, a woman named Ai arrived in Zhengzhou. Shortly after settling into a hotel, she was questioned by a group of police officers who asked her why she was in Zhengzhou. She answered honestly: To withdraw money from the bank. Shortly afterwards, she discovered that her health code had turned red, even though she had a negative COVID-19 test in the last 48 hours.
She was immediately taken to a quarantined hotel by a pandemic prevention worker.
Six Tons interviewed more than a dozen people who found that their health codes turned red after scanning a QR code in the city.
In China, places like train stations and grocery stores have a QR code for people to scan at the entrance, registering their presence as a tool to track contacts during a pandemic. When a person is considered to be positive or at high risk due to close contact with a person positive for COVID-19, their own codes become different colors that correlate with restrictions such as mandatory quarantine.
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 report that their health codes were turning 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 that evening, 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, arbitrarily using measures to prevent and control the epidemic for ‘social governance’ or ‘maintaining stability’, must be held strictly 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 that had turned red.
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