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2022-07-08 10:24:17

Just three weeks after officials in Zhengzhou were punished for misusing the COVID-19 health app and restricting depositors from struggling regional banks from either traveling or moving around in the city to withdraw their savings, more people have found themselves in a similar situation again during the past 24 hours.

Nine depositors from different provinces told Sixth Tone on Friday that their health codes had turned red, even though they hadn’t left their city. While all of them saw their local codes go red, some said their health codes for Henan were also red when they checked.

China has deployed the traffic light-like health code — each province and city have their own version — and a red code is only given to those infected with the coronavirus or their close contacts, restricting access to places and services.

Jia Mei, a 39-year-old homemaker from Heze in the eastern Shandong province, told Sixth Tone that her health code had turned red when she checked at 6 a.m. Friday, even though she hadn’t left the city or come in contact with an individual deemed at risk. She said the code “immediately” turned green within minutes after she called the Zhengzhou city service hotline two hours later.

“I cried for three days last time … I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t happened to me,” Jia said, adding the hotline staff said they would report the case to “an upper department” without explaining about the change.

Red health code of a depositor on July 7, 2022. From People’s Daily

Red health code of a depositor on July 7, 2022. From People’s Daily

Jia is among the thousands of depositors whose savings have been held by four regional banks in Henan, of which Zhengzhou is the provincial capital. Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank, Shangcai Huimin County Bank, and New Oriental County Bank of Kaifeng have stopped cash withdrawals since April after a shareholder fled in the aftermath of a “serious financial crime” the previous month, according to media reports.

Hundreds of people have arrived in Zhengzhou over the past months, demanding answers from regulators and hoping to access their savings. But their health codes turned red, even for those who weren’t in the city, preventing those who were already there from traveling or moving around the city.

Last month, the discipline inspection and supervision authorities in Zhengzhou punished five local officials for misusing the health code. A total of 1,317 depositors had their health codes turned red, of whom only 446 were in Zhengzhou.

However, the red codes are still appearing in the depositors’ health app, which was initially reported by financial media outlet Yicai on Thursday evening.

Chats between depositors in messaging app WeChat, as seen by Sixth Tone, showed that their health codes turned green as soon as they called the Zhengzhou city hotline. One person in Shenzhen claimed that he was taken to a centralized quarantine after authorities found out about his red code.

Many depositors speculated that the abrupt changes served as a warning or an attempt to limit their mobility in Zhengzhou. One depositor who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter told Sixth Tone that around 400 hundred of them were planning to arrive in Zhengzhou to make their demands Friday.

Amid speculations, Zhengzhou Big Data Management Bureau on Friday afternoon said the change in health code was caused by “technical issues” during a system upgrade the previous night, claiming the errors were fixed by 8 a.m.

The continuation of the red health code saga has sparked criticism on social media. A commentary on state-run People’s Daily called for more severe punishments to stamp out misconduct linked to the public health tool.

“Perhaps departments in charge have quietly corrected the mistake, but it’s not the end of the matter,” the article wrote. “The person in charge should be held accountable and severely punished.”

And while depositors scramble to find ways to retrieve their life savings, New Oriental County Bank of Kaifeng reportedly removed the withdrawal and transfer feature on its app through a compulsory update Wednesday, according to Phoenix Media.

“I used to feel cautiously optimistic but now I feel numb,” said Li Mu, one of the depositors from Shandong, using a pseudonym. “I had put a total of 370,000 yuan ($55,170) of deposits into the banks and most of it was savings from my salary. I haven’t sensed any show of responsibility from Henan’s banks to solve the issue.”

Additional reporting by Wu Peiyue; editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: ktsimage/VCG)