As citizens revolt against never-ending lockdowns and local governments “resolutely struggle against all distortions, doubts and denials” of Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy, as recently ordered by the Politburo Standing Committee, a scandal has emerged that threatens to undermine the system at the heart of China’s pandemic prevention strategy. The ubiquitous mobile-app-based health codes that indicate one’s risk status for COVID-19 may have been widely abused by local government officials seeking to limit the movement of specific individuals. This is the conclusion of hundreds of citizens whose health codes suddenly turned red when they attempted to return to Henan in order to access their accounts at banks embroiled in a financial scam. Wu Peiyue from Sixth Tone reported on the backstory to the health code scandal:
Thousands of depositors have attempted to withdraw money in person from at least four of Henan’s regional banks with tens of billions of yuan in frozen deposits since April. The move came after Sun Zhenfu, a shareholder of one of the banks, fled following “serious financial crimes” in March, according to media reports.
The banks withholding the deposits include Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank, Shangcai Huimin County Bank, and New Oriental County Bank of Kaifeng, with Sun reportedly having indirect associations with all of them. Some 1 million customers are said to be affected.
[…] Many of the depositors said they had traveled from the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Shandong, as well as Hebei in the north, to Zhengzhou to demand answers and attempt to retrieve their deposits.
Wang Jin, from Zhangjiakou in Hebei, is among them. The 35-year-old said he came to Zhengzhou hoping to retrieve his savings from Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank on Sunday, but ended up at the police station until the following day when his health code turned red while scanning a QR code to exit the city’s railway station.
He had last checked his health code 30 minutes before arriving in Zhengzhou, and it was still green then. [Source]
Wang Jin is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of customers have been affected by the freezing of more than 39 billion yuan in deposits at four different banks. The ongoing investigation, which began in April of this year, has not resolved the issue, prompting thousands of customers to travel to Zhengzhou, where they took to the streets on May 23 in a large public protest. With no update on the status of their deposits since mid-May, some customers decided to meet again in Zhengzhou on Monday, June 13, to seek more information from authorities.
This is huge. People took to the streets to protest against the fact that they couldn’t withdraw money from several banks for 35 days. May 23, in Zhengzhou city, Henan Province, #CCPChina. Banks have gone bankrupt? pic.twitter.com/qmz7JBGzsJ
— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) June 1, 2022
Police are “maintaining stability” when depositors demand the banks to give back their money in Henan province. People shout: we want to withdraw our money! The banks have no money to allow withdrawals. 河南银行，还我存款！ pic.twitter.com/PmamIhRi0f
— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) June 1, 2022
As of Monday, official data showed that there were no COVID-19 risk areas in Zhengzhou, and incoming travelers who were not customers of those four banks had no trouble entering the city. However, many customers reported their health codes turning red upon arrival. Some who arrived by train were held in rooms with dozens of other customers in the same situation, and others were forced into quarantine. One depositor who tried to arrive by car was stopped by a police officer who explained that his code flagged him as part of a police monitoring system designed for criminals and drug addicts. Some customers had tested their app from outside of the city by scanning Zhengzhou venue codes remotely and discovering that their health app codes turned red. As Phoebe Zhang, Kate Zhang, and Nick Yang from the South China Morning Post described, even customers outside of Henan who were not planning on protesting saw their health codes turn red:
Even people who had not planned to go to the protest and are not physically in Henan have been affected. One man in Changzhou, Hebei province, said his health code turned red while he was sitting at home.
[…] A Shanghai man surnamed Zeng who had deposits at one of the Henan banks said he had not left the financial hub, but his health code system indicated that his health risk level under the Henan province system was high.
[…] Yet, his local health code in Shanghai was still green, and no staff at the epidemic prevention department called him because of his red health code.
[…] Another man surnamed Yuan, from Shenzhen, also said his code turned red on Saturday even though he had not left Shenzhen recently.
He has 350,000 yuan (US$52,000) at two of the rural Henan banks. When Yuan contacted his local government, he was told that Henan province had issued him with a red code, which was synchronised to the national government affairs platform, restricting his movements – even in Shenzhen. [Source]
"Some of those affected appear to be relatives of customers. One woman who lives in Zhumadian, a town 200km (124 miles) from Zhengzhou, said she was taken to a hotel for mandatory quarantine once her status turned red."
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) June 14, 2022
"He recently went to Zhengzhou to understand the situation. Once he came back, his health status turned red. My whole family is now in quarantine after our statuses turned red."
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) June 14, 2022
#Henan bank depositors hit with red code. #China's #Henan province used the covid restrictions as an excuse, some clients of several banks there saw their health code turn red, after arriving at #Zhengzhou and attempting to withdraw money from those regional banks. pic.twitter.com/Kf5i3qAUbD
— FranceTVChine (@francetvchine) June 14, 2022
After freezing $6 billion USD, China's banks in Henan (likely in collab with local gov) are stopping affected depositors from physically going to the banks & ask for their $$ by turning their COVID Health Code – RED*. Red means exposed to COVID & bar you from public spaces. https://t.co/jY0D0yyxBk
— Niva Yau 邱芷恩 (@nivayau) June 14, 2022
Citizens and lawyers criticized this apparent abuse of the health code system. “The purpose of epidemic prevention and control is clear — it’s illegal to use personal privacy beyond this purpose,” Zhang Junqiang, a Shanghai-based lawyer, told domestic media, adding, “if citizens get restricted by the red code when they want to exercise other rights, the intended purpose of the health code has been lost.” Nectar Gan at CNN described how the opacity of the system has allowed the health code to be distorted into a “good citizen certificate”:
“The health code should have been used to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but now it has deviated from its original role and become something like a good citizen certificate,” said Qiu, a depositor in eastern Jiangsu province.
[…] “The health code, like many algorithmic-based systems in China and around the world, lacks transparency. Exactly how companies designed the app and the criteria they use to categorize people remain unclear … It is also hard to know whether the system allows local governments to tamper with it as a means to prevent protests,” said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has studied China’s digital surveillance.
“The opacity of the health code, the ability of it to arbitrarily control people’s movement while giving people few means to effectively appeal the app’s decision, makes it an especially abusive system.” [Source]
CDT editors have collected and translated some netizen reactions to the health code scandal:
@甘先生：National pandemic prevention policy has been reduced to a private weapon, and the genuine safety of the people has been cast aside like it’s nothing. This is the height of expansion of power, ideological decay, and evil influence.
@Kelvin Cao：Those measures were never meant for pandemic prevention.
@西瓜大魔王：I’m afraid that China’s pandemic will never end.
@Bg0xyz：This just goes to prove that, once again, these codes are shackles.
@东吴小坏蛋：Sooner or later, this sort of thing is going to happen to us all. Wake up, people.
@花总：Dealing with societal conflict by giving people red health codes is an extremely dangerous tactic. Health codes exist as a means of pandemic prevention, and people have sacrificed some of their personal rights for the sake of the common good. Health codes shouldn’t be turned into “certificates of good citizenship” in disguise. [Chinese]
The following netizen reactions were collected and translated by CDT editors from the Chinese-language, Quora-like site Zhihu:
@闫毅航：My imagination is really lacking. If this sort of thing had happened in 2019, I would have thought it was the plot of a dystopian novel that couldn’t get past the censors.
@白井黑子：The power conferred by a “state of emergency” is eminently convenient and easy to wield, so much so that no one can resist the temptation to “keep the state of emergency going.” If they have the power to render you immobile in a given situation, the next step is to box you into that situation whenever they want to render you immobile. This is the case with credit reporting, and also the case with health codes.
@lili：When you have a tool that can restrict the freedom of others at will—without any reason, any evidence, or any procedure—you’d be stupid not to use it.
@王克丹：The worst case scenario is [listing these bank customers as] “dishonest debtors.” Now, [Zhihu], stop inviting me to answer this question. [Chinese]
In a sign of just how threatening this scandal is to the CCP’s overall pandemic prevention strategy, numerous state media outlets swiftly and strongly condemned the alleged abuses by local authorities. In his Pekingnology newsletter, Zichen Wang described these reactions from Chinese state media and translated some critical commentary from an offshoot of the overseas edition of People’s Daily:
We don’t know which “genius” came up with the idea of giving red codes to the depositors who were defending their legitimate rights, and we don’t know how such an operation, which is clearly against common sense, the rule of law, and justice, can be carried out in a dignified manner!
[…] To be frank, no matter which department or which people authorized the arbitrary use of epidemic prevention and control measures for the purpose of “social governance” or “stability maintenance”, they should be seriously held accountable.
[…] This is not solving the problem, but intensifying it. This is not “smart and capable”, but a typical example of lazy government and shirking responsibility. The people who came up with these ideas might [have] thought they were quite clever, but unfortunately, their brains are skewed.
[…] The health code is the information infrastructure for epidemic prevention and control. Some people playing smart and faint tricks based on their own “small goals” of governance are not only unhelpful, but will also lose the faith of people. [Source]
China Daily, notably, published an unusually sharp critique of local government authorities “crossing a dangerous red line”:
If some officials abuse their power by turning healthy people’s health codes red, they are crossing a dangerous redline.
Some people in Henan province are alleging that the authorities tampered with their health code to stop them from lodging a complaint against a possible Ponzi scheme. If this is true then this is one of the worst forms of abuse of power.
[…] Most surprisingly, the headquarters for epidemic prevention and control in Zhengzhou, responsible for health code management, is yet to respond to the public outcry. Other departments that the public approached for help have also passed the buck.
This scandal not only discloses the arrogance of those invested with power, but has also brought to light the low level of governance in the some local government agencies’ lack of respect for the rule of law.
[…] Anyone seen to have abused power in the aforementioned case should be held accountable. No one should be allowed to cross the redline by randomly turning people’s health codes red. [Source]
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, posted on WeChat: “I would like to remind that health codes everywhere should only be used for pure epidemic prevention purposes, and under no circumstances should they be used by local governments for other social governance goals unrelated to epidemic prevention.” The Global Times published an editorial on Tuesday under the headline “Scientificity and seriousness of health code must be maintained”:
The health code is a technical means designed to make the public compromise some personal information rights to comply with the needs of society’s public health security. It can only be used for epidemic prevention purposes. It is the responsibility of the relevant authorities to protect the privacy of citizens to the greatest extent during the epidemic prevention process. If speculation of the abuse of the power to misuse the health code is allowed to circulate on the internet, it will generate damage to the government’s credibility. Whether the situation circulated on the internet is in line with the facts, it is necessary for the local authority to give a convincing response.
Misuse of health code-related information is not a trivial matter.
[…] The role of the health code in the regular epidemic prevention and control is so pivotal that its scientific nature and seriousness must be maintained. Some grassroots disputes or “technical errors” must not be allowed to affect public confidence and the overall situation in the fight against the epidemic. The relevant departments in Zhengzhou should conduct prudent and strict investigation and verification. The process should be expedited as much as possible. If this is caused by technical problems, a complete and convincing chain of evidence must be presented; if there is indeed regulation-violation in the process, they must be corrected as soon as possible. [Source]
This is far from the first time China’s health code app has deviated from its stated purpose. Last year, a man returning from a neighboring city to his residence in Xi’an noticed that his health code suddenly turned yellow, and his travel app wrongly insisted that he had instead returned from the Philippines. Common, unpredictable glitches such as these leave many in fear. Eva Dou and Pei-Lin Wu from the Washington Post even stated, “The lack of clarity is a feature not a bug: It’s an incentive for everyone to, well, just stay home.”
Some such “glitches” appear more nefarious. Last year, a Chengdu-based attorney saw his health code abruptly turn from green to red as he passed through Xi’an en route to a trial in Shaanxi. Human rights researchers such as Maya Wang have argued that the health code app provides the government with a new surveillance tool to arbitrarily quarantine activists, journalists, or civil rights lawyers. This follows the popular app National Anti-Fraud Center, produced by the Ministry of Public Security, which was also found to have wide-ranging hidden surveillance capabilities.
Translation by Cindy Carter.