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TAIPEI Angry bank customers who traveled to a city in central China trying to withdraw their savings from troubled rural banks were stopped by a common technology: a QR code.

The QR code, which residents must have, should display a health condition, such as whether they have COVID-19 or have been in close contact. In the central province of Henan, some Chinese found that the sanitary code was being used to control crowds.

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 several times to inform the banks and get their money back, but received no response.

Thousands of people who opened an account at one of six rural banks scattered across neighboring Henan and Anhui provinces have begun trying to withdraw their savings after media reports that the head of the bank’s parent company is on the run. According to The Paper, the majority shareholder of several banks, Sun Zhenfu, was wanted by the authorities for “serious financial crimes.”

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The authorities likely feared 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 these rural banks through national financial platforms such as JD Digits. There, small banks sold financial products to customers, such as term deposit accounts with higher interest rates, which require people to leave their money for a certain amount of time, according to Sixth Tone, The Paper’s English-language sister publication.

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 recently deleted WeChat account, a woman named Ai arrived in Zhengzhou. Shortly after checking into the hotel, she was interrogated by a group of police officers who asked her why she was in Zhengzhou. She honestly answered: Withdraw money from the bank. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that her health code had turned red even though she had tested negative for COVID-19 in the past 48 hours.

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

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

In China, places like train stations and grocery stores have a QR code that people must scan at the entrance, registering their presence as a contact tracing tool during the pandemic. When a person is considered positive or at high risk due to close contact with a person infected with COVID-19, their own codes are colored differently which are associated with restrictions such as mandatory quarantine.

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

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One bank customer who identified herself as Liu said she saw many people reporting 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 that evening, 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 which department or person provoked this, arbitrarily using epidemic prevention and control measures for ‘social management’ or ‘maintaining stability’ should be held strictly accountable,” the article says.

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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.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

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