2022-06-15 11:30:09

Depositors who arrived in the central city of Zhengzhou in an attempt to withdraw their savings from regional embattled banks only to have their movements curtailed by a red health code have slammed the reasoning from local authorities behind the move.

The epidemic prevention department in the city’s Erqi District told the Southern Metropolis Daily on Tuesday that only people who hadn’t reported their arrival in the city three days in advance were hit with red health codes. The national and local versions of the color-coded health app are major COVID-19 control tools in China — a green code guarantees access to public areas and services, whereas a red code serves as a warning of COVID infection or possible infection.

But depositors who came to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of the central Henan province, told Sixth Tone on Tuesday they found the response from the local health officials “problematic” and even false.

Two depositors who arrived in the city Sunday said they had reported their arrival through the health app three days in advance, as required by local regulations, and yet their code still turned red. Another two depositors who came separately to the city with their family members on Friday and Sunday said that only their health codes turned red.

“This obviously targeted the depositors,” Ren Lixiang, a 32-year-old farmer from the central province of Hubei, told Sixth Tone.

Screenshots show some of the depositors’ red health codes. From Weibo

Screenshots show some of the depositors’ red health codes. From Weibo

On Monday, the story of depositors who had arrived in Zhengzhou in an attempt to withdraw their savings and demand answers from local authorities but had their health codes turned red to restrict them from doing so made national headlines. The banks involved are Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank, Shangcai Huimin County Bank, and New Oriental County Bank of Kaifeng.

Some 1 million people with savings in at least four Henan-based banks are said to have been affected after they froze tens of billions of yuan in deposits since April. The move came after a shareholder of one of the banks and with indirect links to others — Sun Zhenfu — fled in March after committing “serious financial crimes,” according to media reports.

While the media has previously reported on the banks withholding money and depositors from many parts of the country staging sit-in protests in Zhengzhou, it was the first time there were discussions about their health codes turning red.

China first introduced the health code as virtual passports to track people’s movements in a bid to curb COVID infections in early 2020. But the technology raised concerns from the start, with some experts citing the potential of privacy intrusion and data collection in the longer run.

More than two years later, the use of health codes as more than just a public health tool in Henan has since triggered anger and fierce debates among the depositors and influential observers and experts in related fields. Some legal experts have even termed it as “illegal.”

“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. “The health code is a technical measure based on the need for public interest, for which citizens have conceded their rights. But 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.”

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, also weighed in on this issue on his Weibo microblog, saying that local health codes should be only used for COVID prevention purposes. Any other use, he said, would be a “clear violation” of anti-virus measures and will “undermine the prestige of health codes and public support for epidemic prevention.”

In an editorial Monday, Global Times also said that “health code information should never be misappropriated.” The newspaper also said that relevant authorities in Zhengzhou should “conduct prudent and strict investigation.”

Relevant departments in Henan and Zhengzhou are yet to publicly respond on why the depositors were given red codes.

Meanwhile, reports involving similar incidents surfaced online Tuesday, claiming that people involved in other financial disputes in Henan were also hit with red health codes.

Some property owners of the Rongchuang Zhongyuan apartment complex under construction in Zhengzhou had complained to the local authorities that the work had been stalled for over eight months, according to a WeChat post. The property owners reportedly received red codes on Sunday three days after making a petition at a related department in the city.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A screenshot shows red health code of an interviewee. From The Paper)