China Used Coronavirus Monitor App to Shut Down Financial Scandal Protest

BEIJING, CHINA -JUNE 13: A health worker wears protective clothing as he looks at his phon
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chinese officials on Saturday were apparently able to suppress protests against a banking scandal in the central province of Henan by the simple expedient of flipping a switch and turning the “health QR codes” of many protesters red.

In other words, they falsely tagged the protesters as coronavirus health risks, denying them access to public transportation and getting them detained for no good reason by local police.

China’s authoritarian government forces its citizens to install a “health code” app on their smartphones that gives them a scannable, color-coded rating for their current health status. Green health codes are required to use many public facilities or enter some buildings.

Henan province is the scene of a massive banking scandal that could blow up into one of China’s worst financial meltdowns to date. Four rural banks froze all deposits in mid-April, locking customers away from their own money and triggering fears that a wider banking freeze could be imposed during an impending recession.

Chinese banking regulators are claiming the funds, which may collectively total over two billion dollars, were improperly frozen due to some vaguely-described malfeasance by bank employees.

This has done little to ease the troubled minds of depositors, who wonder why the government is not moving faster to make their life savings available for withdrawal again. Frustrated bank customers are frightened bank employees may have stolen their money, or the government could seize it as the proceeds of an illegal investment scheme.

Hundreds of protesters have been gathering outside banks and regulatory offices in Henan for the past few weeks, waving signs with slogans like “Return my savings!” and resisting police orders to disperse. 

Beginning on Saturday and continuing through the weekend, astonished would-be protesters began discovering their health QR codes had turned red – and remained red even after they rushed out to get additional coronavirus testing done. Police detained some demonstrators for violating coronavirus protocols.

A woman scans a tracking QR code at a subway station in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. China's financial capital reported its fewest Covid-19 cases in almost three months as residents celebrated a significant easing of curbs on movement, while some companies took a more cautious approach, maintaining some restrictions in factories. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A woman scans a tracking QR code at a subway station in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“An operator for Zhengzhou’s government service hotline did not address questions about protesters’ health codes turning red, but said that those with red health codes could try to change their status by following various prevention rules such as getting tested,” the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Tuesday.

Some of the people improperly red-flagged discovered their QR codes seemed to work properly in other provinces, suggesting local officials illegally gained access to their personal health data in order to tamper with their code ratings in Henan.

However, the SCMP told the stories of several people with money in the scandal-plagued banks who watched their health codes turn red while they were sitting at home in other provinces. Days of persistent calls to health officials were needed to get their codes returned to green status. The victims reported they were unable to use public facilities until they got their codes straightened out.

The BBC reported on Tuesday that some of the improperly red-coded Chinese citizens were forced into quarantine by health officials.

“I am not a customer, it’s my dad who deposited money in one of the banks and now he can’t get it out. 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,” one flummoxed woman said.

A health official blithely informed the BBC that victims of the improper code switches could get their clean QR codes back by taking two coronavirus tests within three days.


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