Chinese Officials Are Weaponizing COVID Health Tracker to Block Protests

Would-be protesters saw their health codes turn red and were forced into quarantine.

Chinese bank depositors planning a protest about their frozen funds saw their health code mysteriously turn red and were stopped from traveling to the site of a rally, confirming fears that China’s vast COVID-tracking system could be weaponized as a powerful tool to stifle dissent.

A red health code designated the would-be protesters as suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients, limiting their movement and access to public transportation. Their rallies in the central Henan province this week were thwarted as some were forced into quarantine and others detained by police.

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A 38-year-old software engineer was among hundreds who could not access their savings at four rural banks since mid-April. She had planned to travel from her home in Jiangxi province to Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital city, to join a group petition this week to demand her money back. But her health code turned from green to red shortly after she bought a train ticket on Sunday. She said a nucleic test for COVID she took the night before came back negative and her hometown has not reported any infection recently. 

“Henan authorities targeted the health code of bank depositors in order to stop us from defending our rights,” she told VICE World News, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid government reprisal. She eventually managed to reach Zhengzhou using her green health code on a different app, but was daunted by the sight of police officers out in force.

More than 200 bank depositors from all over the country saw their health codes turned red over the past week, which effectively foiled a planned protest outside the Henan branch of China’s banking regulator. Chinese activists and dissidents have reported similar experiences in the past, but the latest crackdown appears to be the most brazen example of how the authorities could exploit the supposed COVID-19 measure for political purposes.

“The foremost concern is that authorities could arbitrarily interfere with citizens’ health codes in ways that have little or nothing to do with their exposure risk,” Vincent Brussee, an analyst at the German think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies, told VICE World News. “Zhengzhou’s case is certainly the most brash example of such abuse.”

A WORKER CHECks PEOPLE'S HEALTH CODE BEFORE THEY WERE ALLOWED IN A MARKET IN SHANGHAI. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP

China’s color-coded health tracking system classifies residents into green, yellow, and red based on their risk of exposure to coronavirus. It is part of the country’s zero-tolerance policy on COVID, which seeks to stamp out any outbreak with stringent lockdowns and almost daily nucleic tests. 

The apparent abuse of health code is made possible in part because the system gathers real-time cellular and location data, giving Chinese authorities granular and identifiable data on citizens’ movement, in addition to their travel and contact history, as well as medical information such as body temperature.

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This is unlike contract tracing apps used in Europe, New Zealand, and Singapore, which use short-range technologies such as Bluetooth to alert users who have been in proximity to an infected person and anonymize the collected data.

“China’s authorities have a great deal of discretion to access this trove of data, which is a privacy risk but also opens room for abuse,” Brussee said. Such abuse could give authorities near complete control over who gets to go where and when, because green health codes are typically a requirement for travel, entry into office buildings and even appointments at hairdressers, he added. 

In some provinces, yellow health codes mean residents are grounded at home for 7 to 14 days, while red codes mandate isolation at centralized quarantine. An analysis by the New York Times in 2020 found that a piece of the program labeled “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” sends users’ location, city, and an identifying number to a server right after they permit the software access to their personal information.

Its pervasive use means few could afford to opt out, and it has drawn concerns about the power the system gives Chinese authorities to regulate citizens’ lives. But the latest incident has renewed public alarm and could weaken trust in the system.

Even Hu Xijin, former chief editor of the state tabloid Global Times, called on the local authority to give a “convincing response” to speculation that authorities in Henan abused health code. “If someone tries to use the health code for purposes other than epidemic prevention, this kind of behavior is not only against social morality, but also suspected of violating the law or regulation,” wrote Hu in the tabloid, which rarely criticizes Chinese government policies.

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Another bank depositor told VICE World News she received a call from local police as soon as she set foot in Zhengzhou on Sunday. Within hours after they confirmed her arrival, her health code turned red and she was forced into a quarantine at a local resort. After she bought a ticket on Tuesday to return home, her health code immediately turned green. 

The move is part of wider efforts by local authorities in Henan to silence bank depositors embroiled in a financial scandal. China’s central bank has launched an investigation into the four banks. A continuing probe by the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission found that a major shareholder of the four banks used online platforms and money brokers to illicitly attract public funds. 

As the investigation dragged on, customers have demanded the banks grant those urgently in need of money access to their deposits, but their requests have gone unheard. Instead, in May, local authorities in Zhengzhou deployed heavy police forces to detain hundreds of customers that gathered outside the banking regulator to protest. They planned another rally this week to take the issue up with authorities, but most did not even make it to the building. A handful that did said in a group chat they were roughened up and detained by police officers. 

A 40-year-old employee of a foreign company, surnamed Han, joined a protest on May 23, having lost access to half a million yuan (about $74,600) in savings. Since his return to his home in Suzhou, he received frequent calls from police, demanding information about his whereabouts and warning him not to travel to Zhengzhou again. 

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“I don’t understand why officials would rather spend their efforts cracking down on us and generate such bad publicity than issue statements to communicate with depositors as they had promised,” said Han, who provided only his surname due to fear of government retribution.

“The frozen funds already took our confidence in the banks, and now with red health codes, the credibility of the government itself is gone as well,” Sun, an engineer from Yantai of Shandong, told VICE World News, requesting the use of only his surname for fear of reprisal.

His code turned red while he was on his way to Zhengzhou on Sunday. When he exited the train station, he was caught by security officers, who were checking the health codes and ID of travelers. He was escorted to a room, where he found ten other bank depositors also with red health codes. An official warned that unless they comply with orders, they would be subjected to 14 days of quarantine out of their own pockets. None of them made it to the protest. 

Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

SURVEILLANCE, china, worldnews, world coronavirus

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