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    Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga

    While five government officials received different degrees of punishments, legal experts say the liability for invasion of privacy remains unanswered.

    Five officials in Zhengzhou have received various degrees of punishment for their involvement in handing out red health codes that restricted the mobility of hundreds of depositors who had either arrived in the central Chinese city or were planning trips to withdraw their savings from struggling regional banks.

    Feng Xianbin, director of the Social Management Department in the city’s epidemic prevention department, was stripped of his party title and removed from his position, while his deputy, Zhang Linlin, was demoted from her post, discipline inspection and supervision authorities in Zhengzhou announced Wednesday evening. The duo had “decided to give red codes to some village bank depositors without authorization” and ordered three other officials to carry out the decision.

    The director of the Stability Maintenance Department of the Political and Legal Committee of the Municipal Party Committee and a member of staff of the Municipal Big Data Bureau were among the three officials “disciplined” over the red code saga, the announcement said.

    A large number of depositors from four banks in Henan province, of which Zhengzhou is the provincial capital, found their health codes turned red last week, stopping them from arriving in the city and restricting those already there from protesting in front of the local banking and insurance regulatory commission.

    The color-coded app-based health system is a major tool in China’s fight against COVID-19 and determines people’s access to public places and services. A red code is only given to people infected with the coronavirus or those deemed as close contacts of infected individuals.

    A total of 1,317 Henan bank depositors had received red health codes and 446 of them were already in Zhengzhou when they found out, the announcement said. The remaining depositors were not in Henan but found their health codes turned red while scanning the city-specific QR code — most cities have their own local health codes in addition to the national one — from their places of residence.

    Almost all who received the red health codes have been unable to withdraw their savings from the four banks — Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank, Shangcai Huimin County Bank, and New Oriental County Bank of Kaifeng — since April 18 when they all shut online banking systems for system upgrades. The banks then continued to prevent depositors from withdrawing at cash counters as well, saying they were cooperating with police investigations over a financial crime related to one of the bank’s shareholders.

    The depositors’ plight grabbed national headlines last week, prompting local authorities to investigate. However, many depositors hit with red codes told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that the investigation report wasn’t convincing enough.

    A depositor in Zhengzhou said she wasn’t the only one to receive a red health code on June 14. Four other family members under the same household registration also realized their health codes turned red. All of their codes turned green again following the intensive media coverage of the issue that same day.

    Meanwhile, a depositor from the coastal city of Qingdao who was planning to travel to Zhengzhou said her health code for Zhengzhou turned red when she scanned the QR code on June 11. A week later, her Qingdao health code also turned from green to red even though she hadn’t left her hometown or came into contact with potential COVID patients.  Both the health codes turned green eventually.

    While authorities in Zhengzhou have addressed the misuse of health codes, meant to be used only for COVID-related purposes, depositors and legal experts are demanding more accountability on issues related to personal privacy. Wednesday’s announcement didn’t address how client details from the four banks were leaked or how the officials in question obtained them.

    Chen Zhi, a lawyer at Shanghai United Law Firm, told Sixth Tone that while the four banks should be held accountable for a breach of contract after disclosing depositors’ personal information, it’s currently still unclear whether the relevant banking regulators should also be held accountable. He added that banks cannot freeze depositors’ funds unless they’re involved in specific investigations.

    “The people’s procuratorates, public security organs, state security organs, and other organs with relevant rights may only inquire about and freeze the criminal suspect’s deposits, remittances, bonds, stocks, fund shares, and other properties in accordance with regulations when there is a need to investigate crimes,” he said.

    “The current investigation announcement is an intra-party punishment,” Chen added. “As for the next step, how to pursue accountability at the legal level, it should be decided after the public security organ or the supervisory organ investigates further.”

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Screenshots show green and red health codes. From Weibo)