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20 Jun 2022

JOY DONG, The New York Times (USA)

China: Covid app sparks outcry and investigation as red health codes block protesting bank customers


"A Chinese city may have used a Covid app to block protesters, drawing an outcry" 17 June 2022

Since the pandemic’s early days, China has used mobile apps to identify and isolate people who might be spreading Covid. Now, a central Chinese city may have shown a far more troubling use of that data: stopping would-be protesters.

Dozens of people from across China had set off for the city of Zhengzhou days ago to protest the freezing of their savings amid an investigation into several regional banks. But when they arrived in the city, many found that the so-called health codes on their phones had turned from green — meaning good — to red, a designation that would prevent them from moving freely.

Tom Zhang, the owner of a textile business in the eastern province of Zhejiang, said that this happened to him when he was on a train headed to Zhengzhou on Sunday, despite coming from a town where there had been no Covid cases. Upon arriving in the city, Mr. Zhang said, he was stopped by the police and told his red code — usually suggesting an infection or close contact — indicated he posed public health risk. He said the Zhengzhou police held him in a local library for around 12 hours.

“The red code was definitely used to limit us depositors,” Mr. Zhang said in a phone interview. “It was a complete absurdity.”

Mr. Zhang was part of a group of hundreds of depositors in several rural banks who had planned to lodge a complaint with the Henan Province bank regulator on Monday after having been unable to withdraw their money for months. (Mr. Zhang said his account held about $440,000 in savings.) Several other people from this group also told The New York Times that their health codes had changed en route to Zhengzhou. [...]

Hu Xijin, a former editor of the ruling Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, warned that the use of the health code for purposes other than epidemic control “damages the authority” of the monitoring system and would chip away at the public’s support for it. His post on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform, on Monday became a hashtag that was among the most-searched earlier this week, drawing 280 million views. [...]