Locals say China used health tracker to control crowds

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Angry bank customers who traveled to a central Chinese city to try to recover their savings from struggling rural banks have been stopped short by a common technology: a QR code.

The QR code, which residents are required to have, is meant to display a person’s health status, such as whether they have COVID-19 or have been a close contact. In the central province of Henan, some Chinese discovered that the health code was used to enforce crowd control.

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 several times to report the banks and get their money back, but got no response.

Thousands of people who had opened an account at one of six rural banks scattered across neighboring Henan and Anhui provinces began trying to withdraw their savings after media reported that the head of the parent company banks 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 these rural banks through national financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, smaller banks have sold their customers financial products like fixed deposit accounts with higher interest rates, which forces people to leave their money behind for a while, according to Sixth Tone, the publication sister in English of The Paper.

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

In a since-deleted account posted on WeChat, a woman named Ai had arrived in Zhengzhou. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, she was interrogated by a group of policemen who asked her why she was in Zhengzhou. She answered honestly: To withdraw money from the bank. Shortly after, she discovered that her health code had turned red even though she had a negative COVID-19 test result in the past 48 hours.

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

Sixth Tone interviewed more than a dozen people whose 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 that people can scan at the entrance, logging their presence as a contact tracing tool during the pandemic. When someone is deemed positive or at high risk due to close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive, their own codes take on different colors that correspond to restrictions such as mandatory quarantine.

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 report their health codes turning 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. Hours after police officers took him out of Zhengzhou that evening, 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 held strictly accountable,” the editorial read.

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