Taipei, Taiwan — Angry bank customers who traveled to a city in central China to withdraw their savings from troubled rural banks have been halted by a health app on their mobile phone.

Chinese residents must have a health app that displays a code indicating their health status, including possible exposure to COVID-19. A green code is required to use public transport and enter places such as offices, restaurants, and malls. But some depositors in central Henan banks said their codes had turned red to stop them.

The incident sparked a nationwide debate about how a tool designed for public health was appropriated by political forces to mitigate divisions.

The problem began in April when customers found they were unable to access online banking services. They tried to inform the banks and get their money back, but received no response.

Thousands of people who opened accounts at six rural banks in Henan and Anhui provinces began trying to withdraw their savings after media reports surfaced that the head of the bank’s parent company was on the run. According to The Paper, the majority shareholder of several banks, Sun Zhenfu, was wanted by the authorities for “serious financial crimes.”

The authorities were likely afraid of a bank run, which is not uncommon for smaller banks in China, which tend to be less stable than their larger institutional counterparts.

Clients from all over the country were connected to rural banks through financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, small banks sold financial products to customers, such as term deposit accounts with higher interest rates that require people to deposit their money for a set period of time, according to Sixth Tone, a sister publication of The Paper.

Unable to resolve the issue online, customers filed a demand for government action earlier this week at the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission’s Henan office in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou. But when they arrived in the city, they found that they could not go far.

In one of the long-deleted accounts on the social media app WeChat, a woman named Ai said that shortly after she checked into a hotel in Zhengzhou, she was interrogated by a group of police officers who asked her why she was there. She replied that she wanted to withdraw money from her bank account. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that her health code had turned red, even though she had tested negative for COVID-19 in the previous 48 hours.

A pandemic prevention worker immediately took her to a quarantine hotel.

Sixth Tone interviewed more than a dozen people who said their health codes turned red after they scanned a QR code in the city.

In China, places like train stations and grocery stores have QR codes to scan at the entrance, registering people’s presence for contact tracing during the pandemic. When people are considered at risk of contracting COVID-19, their codes are colored differently to indicate restrictions such as mandatory quarantine.

With a red health code, it is impossible to go to public places or even get on a train.

One bank customer who identified herself as Liu said she saw many people report that their health codes turned red after arriving in Zhengzhou.

Liu, who didn’t travel to Zhengzhou herself, said she tested the code change after others reported it in their general group chat. After scanning the QR code from a photo someone shared in the group, Liu found that her health code had also turned red.

Another bank customer told Sixth Tone that he received a red code after being scanned at a Zhengzhou train station and was taken into police custody. A few hours after the police forced him to leave Zhengzhou, his health code turned green.

Jiakedao, a social media account operated by the Communist Party’s main newspaper, criticized the Henan provincial authorities in an editorial on Tuesday.

“Let’s be frank, no matter what agency or person provoked it, the arbitrary use of epidemic prevention and control measures for ‘social management’ or ‘maintaining stability’ should be held strictly accountable,” the editorial said.

A spokesman for the Henan Provincial Pandemic Control Committee said in response to Jiakedao’s report that authorities are investigating reports that health codes have turned red.

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