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But when Liu scanned a local QR code to exit Zhengzhou train station, his health code turned red — a nightmare for any traveler in China, where freedom of movement is strictly dictated by a color code system put in place by the government to control. the spread of the virus.

Any person with a red code, which is usually assigned to people infected with Covid or considered by the authorities to be at high risk of infection, immediately becomes persona non grata. They are banned from all public places and transport, and are often subject to a week-long government quarantine.

This nearly derailed Liu, who traveled to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, to seek compensation from a bank that had frozen his deposits. He has deposited his savings totaling about 6 million yuan ($890,000) in a village bank in Henan province and has not been able to withdraw a cent since April.

Over the past two months, thousands of depositors like Liu have been fighting to get their savings back from at least four rural banks in Henan province – in a case involving billions of dollars. At the end of May, hundreds of them came to Zhengzhou from all over China and staged a protest outside the office of the banking regulator of Henan Province to demand their money back – to no avail.
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Another protest was planned for Monday. But when depositors arrived in Zhengzhou, they were stunned to find their health codes, which were green when they left, had turned red, according to six people who spoke to CNN and social media posts.

Dozens of depositors were taken to a quarantine hotel guarded by police and local authorities, and sent by train to their hometowns the next day; others were “quarantined” at several other locations in the city, including a college campus, according to witnesses and online reports.

The depositors accused the Zhengzhou authorities of interfering with the health code system to prevent them from returning to the city and thus thwart their plans to protect their rights.

“The health code was supposed to be used to prevent the spread of a pandemic, but now it has moved away from its original role and has become something of a good citizen’s certificate,” said Qiu, a contributor in eastern Jiangsu province.

Qiu, a teacher, was not in Henan to protest, but his health code also turned red on Sunday evening after he scanned a QR code from Zhengzhou. He said one of the contributors shared a photo of Zhengzhou’s QR code on the WeChat messaging app in an attempt to find out if contributors outside of Henan were affected.

The red code seems to be for contributors only. According to him, Qiu used his wife’s phone to scan the QR code, and it turned green. “I called the government hotline in Zhengzhou to complain about my red code and was told there was an error in the big data information database.”

Liu and Qiu were asked to use only their last names.

CNN has reached out to the Zhengzhou government for comment. This was announced by the Henan Provincial Health Committee. government news website thepaper.cn it was an “investigation and verification” of complaints from depositors who received red codes.
A patient scans a QR code at a makeshift hospital for people infected with Covid-19 in Shanghai April 24.

reaction online

The alleged abuse of power sparked outrage on social media.

“Now (authorities) can prevent you from filing a petition by directly putting digital shackles on you, that is, issuing red codes to you,” one comment on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter, reads.

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, said on weibo that local governments should not use health codes for any purpose other than epidemic prevention.

“If any locality tries to prevent the movement of certain people by controlling their sanitation for other purposes, this will not only be a clear violation of Covid prevention laws and regulations, but will also jeopardize the credibility of sanitation and public support for the epidemic. prevention,” Hu wrote on Tuesday. “It will do more harm than good to our social governance.”

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Human rights groups have long warned that China’s ubiquitous Covid surveillance and tracking network could be used by authorities to target individuals and groups for political reasons, such as cracking down on dissent.

Last November, Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer from the southern city of Changsha, said on Twitter that his health code turned red the morning he was about to board a flight to Shanghai to visit the mother of Zhang Zhang, a citizen journalist imprisoned for reporting on China’s first coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

“The health code, like many algorithmic systems in China and around the world, lacks transparency. Exactly how the companies developed the app and the criteria they use to classify people remains unclear… It’s also difficult to see if the system allows local authorities to intervene as a means of preventing protests,” said Maya Wang, researcher at Human Rights Watch. , who studied digital surveillance in China.

“The opacity of the health code, its ability to arbitrarily control people’s movements, providing little means for people to effectively appeal against an application’s decision, makes it a particularly offensive system.”

The code turns green again

From Zhengzhou Railway Station, Liu, a contributor from Beijing, was taken to a room with several other travelers with red health codes.

There, he met another depositor who came from Anyang, another city in Henan Province, and then the police escorted the two of them to a quarantine hotel. By evening, about 40 depositors – all with red health codes – were at the hotel and were told to stay there overnight.

The next day, he was allowed to leave the hotel and return to Beijing, accompanied by the police and local authorities, until he boarded the train. He was exempted from scanning any QR codes en route because his code was still red and, under Covid regulations, he was not allowed to enter the train station, let alone travel.

On Tuesday, as news and anger over red health codes circulated online, some contributors said their health codes had gone green again.

Liu’s code also turned green in the evening, but he said he wanted responsibility.

“The officials who made the decision (intervention in the system of sanitary norms) and carried out the policy should be punished in accordance with the law,” he said. “But I’m not too optimistic about it. The government’s power is too capricious.”

Additional coverage by Laura He and CNN’s Beijing Bureau.

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