Anyone with a red code – usually assigned to people infected with Covid or deemed by 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 weeks of government quarantine.
All of this derailed plans for Liu, who had come to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, to seek redress from a bank that froze his deposits. He had put his life savings – totaling about 6 million yuan ($ 890,000) – into a rural bank in Henan, and has been unable to withdraw a cent since April.
Another protest was scheduled for Monday. But when the depositors arrived in Zhengzhou, they were stunned to find that their health codes – which were green upon departure – had turned red, according to six who spoke to CNN and social media posts.
Dozens of depositors were taken to a quarantine hotel guarded by police and local officials before being sent away on trains to their hometowns the next day; others have been “quarantined” in several other locations in the city, including a university campus, according to witnesses and online posts.
The depositors accused the Zhengzhou authorities of tampering with the health code system to prevent them from returning to the city, thus defeating their plans to defend their rights.
“The health code was supposed to be used to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but it has now deviated from its original role and has become something like a good citizen certificate,” said Qiu, a custodian in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
Qiu, a teacher, had not been to Henan to protest, but his health code also turned red on Sunday evening after scanning a QR code from Zhengzhou. He said another depositor had shared a photo of Zhengzhou’s QR code on WeChat’s messaging app, in an attempt to find out if depositors outside Henan were also interested.
The red code appears to only target depositors. Qiu used his wife’s phone to scan the QR code and it went green again, he said. “I called the government hotline in Zhengzhou to complain about my red code and they told me there was some error with the Big Data information database.”
Liu and Qiu both asked to be identified only by their surnames.
The alleged abuse of power has sparked protests on social media.
“Now (the authorities) can stop you from petitioning by placing digital chains on you directly, that is, by giving you red codes,” said a comment on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform.
“If a location attempts to prevent the movement of certain people by checking their health codes for other purposes, it is not only a clear violation of Covid prevention laws and regulations, it will also jeopardize the credibility of health codes and support. of the public to epidemic prevention, “Hu wrote on Tuesday. “It will do more harm than good to our social government.”
Human rights groups have long warned that China’s ubiquitous Covid surveillance and monitoring network could be used by authorities to target individuals and groups for political reasons, such as suppressing dissent.
“The health code, like many algorithm-based systems in China and around the world, lacks transparency. Exactly how companies designed the app and the criteria they use to rank people remain unclear … It’s also difficult. to know if the system allows local governments to tamper with it as a means of preventing protests, “said Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has studied China’s digital surveillance.
“The opacity of the health code, its ability to arbitrarily control people’s movements while giving people few means to effectively appeal the app’s decision, makes it a particularly abusive system.”
The code turns green again
From the Zhengzhou railway station, Liu, the Beijing side, was taken to a room where several other travelers with red health codes were present.
There, he met another side who had traveled from Anyang, another Henan city, and the two were then escorted by police to a quarantine hotel. By the evening, about 40 depositors – all with red health codes – had ended up at the hotel and were told to stay overnight.
The next afternoon he was allowed to leave the hotel and return to Beijing, escorted by police and local officials until he boarded the train. He was exempted from scanning any QR code along the way, because his code was still red and according to Covid rules, he would not be allowed to enter the station, let alone travel.
As news and anger over red health codes spread online on Tuesday, some depositors said their health codes had turned green again.
Liu’s code also turned green in the late afternoon, but he said he wants responsibility.
“The officials who made the decision (to tamper with the health code system) and who enforced the policy should receive their punishment under the law,” he said. “But I’m not too optimistic about that. Government power is too capricious.”
Additional reporting by Laura He and CNN’s Beijing office.