China’s covid health app – a political tool to stifle dissent

In latest attempt to stifle dissent, the Chinese authorities have misusedhealth app code to stop depositors who had lost access to their funds, from protesting against local banks in the Henan province. Several activists and netizens have criticised the authorities while some described it a new political tool of the government to restrict mobility and others said it is digital handcuffs.

In early pandemic time, China had developed a color-coded smartphone app to track the movement of people in its effort to control the spread of COVID-19 and implement its zero-COVID policy.The government had used mobile apps to identify and isolate people from who might be spreading Covid-19. Recent media reports stated that authorities in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, used the required codes to restrict the movement of people upset because local banks had frozen their deposits.

Hundreds of depositors who were unable to withdraw money recently planned to travel to Zhengzhou to protest against local banks which had frozen their accounts on the ground that internal systems were being upgraded. Upon arrival,  many found that the so-called health codes on their phones had turned from green to red. Red meant they couldn’t travel, and the protests fizzled. The red code seemed to target only depositors. Without a green code on their smartphone app, citizens lost access to public transport and spaces such as restaurants and malls, as well as the right to travel across the country.A red code — usually suggesting an infection or close contact — indicated he or she posed public health risk.

News report suggested that the police held several people and prevented them from moving around. Several people claimed that they have been forced to quarantine, or denied access to public transportation or buildings.

The local banks namely New Oriental Country Bank of Kaifeng, ZhechengHuanghuai Community Bank, ShangcaiHuimin County Bank, and YuzhouXin Min Sheng Village Bank have faced difficulties providing cash withdrawals.However, the banks froze deposits on April 18which led to angry protests last month. China’s banking and insurance regulator has ordered an inquiry into the matter. A total of 6 billion US dollars is estimated to have been frozen which has affected thousands of customers and companies.

Meanwhile, rights groups have come down heavily on authorities for using its vast COVID surveillance infrastructure to prevent protests.  According to latest reports, when some residents tried to enter train stations, hotels, or buildings on Tuesday, their status turned red. How many of them were affected is not known but the issue has been reported in several towns and villages in Henan province. Even customers of the four banks who travelled from other provinces to Zhengzhouhave experienced the same. An unnamed bank customer in Zhengzhou stated that her status was red despite never having come into contact with a confirmed case and that her recent tests had been negative. She further added that she was approached by health officials who told her to stay at home and refused to give her an explanation as to why her status suddenly turned red.

However, many took to the chinese social media platforms raising questions over the move.Hu Xijin, a popular Chinese commentator and former newspaper editor, said “health codes” should be used solely for the purpose of preventing pandemics.”If any area uses health codes to restrict people’s movements for other purposes, this is clearly a breach of pandemic prevention laws… and damages the support of the people for our fight against the virus,” he said.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of Global Times, posted on his Weibo microblog that the “red code issue is very disturbing,” and that any non-COVID-related use would be a “clear violation” of virus prevention measures.

Meanwhile, the state-run Global Times editorial tried to clear the air about a new political tool in the hands of government and  stated the health code is a technical means designed to make the public compromise some personal information rights to comply with the needs of society’s public health security. It can only be used for epidemic prevention purposes. It is the responsibility of the relevant authorities to protect the privacy of citizens to the greatest extent during the epidemic prevention process.”  It further stated that there is a high degree of consensus throughout society that health code information should never be misappropriated. In fact, the vast majority of the country is becoming more and more cautious in protecting privacy when it comes to handling relevant information. 

Another article in Global times claimed that Beijing’s online health code checking system, Jiankangbao, was hit by cyber attacks from overseas in April and during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, but the situation was taken care of properly. The officials assured to provide better cyber security services and safeguard the capital’s epidemic prevention work.