- China uses a traffic light system in a COVID app to let people know if they can enter public places.
- People who have recently tried to participate in a protest fear the app is being used to monitor and target them.
- The incidents spurred foreign and domestic critics to speak out about the app.
As part of China’s efforts to control COVID-19, provincial authorities have been using a contact-tracing “health code” app to monitor people’s movements.
The app works with a traffic light coding system. The user scans a location’s QR code, and in turn, their own QR code turns green or red. If green, they have everything cleared to enter; if red, they may have COVID-19 and should be quarantined.
But a recent wave of protests in central China’s Zhengzhou has led some people to fear that the app is being used for a different purpose: to monitor and target people who have participated in those protests.
Questions dating back to bank protests in Zhengzhou
In April, four local banks in Henan, the province Zhengzhou is in, announced they would freeze deposits, cutting hundreds of thousands of people off about $6 billion of their money, according to the BBC.
In recent weeks, people have taken to the streets in Zhengzhou and Henan, asking officials and banks to give their money back.
Earlier this week, dozens of people traveled to Zhengzhou to take part in a protest. But upon arriving in Zhengzhou and scanning QR codes at train stations, buildings or hotels, they said their health codes turned red. People have detailed their experiences to outlets like Reuters, Bloomberg and various Chinese news outlets.
A Beijing tech professional, Liu, told CNN he arrived in Zhengzhou on Sunday with a green health code. He was planning to require one of the banks to release $890,000 of his deposits. But his code flashed red at the Zhengzhou train station and he was escorted to a quarantine hotel, where he said he saw about 40 other people whose health codes also turned red.
Zhang, a factory owner in coastal Zhejiang province, arrived in Zhengzhou on Monday to take part in the protest, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Zhang said that after his health code appeared red at the train station, local police took him to a library, where he joined about 10 other people who were planning to demonstrate.
Liu and Zhang were escorted back to Beijing and Zhejiang, respectively, by police, according to CNN and SCMP.
It is unclear whether the Zhengzhou authorities used the protesters’ codes to prevent them from participating in the protests. Henan reported no new cases of COVID-19 in the past week, according to figures released by the provincial health commission.
A Zhengzhou government hotline was inundated with complaints questioning whether the city was targeting people by turning its codes red, according to a Tuesday report by state-owned Yicai. A spokesperson for the Henan health agency told Yicai that authorities in Zhengzhou were investigating the incident.
Henan Provincial Administrative Approval and the Government Information Administration, which oversees the use of digital data across the province, did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment. Insider made several calls to a hotline number listed on the Zhengzhou Big Data Administration website, but the calls did not go through.
National critics join the chorus of foreign critics
Since the coding system was introduced at the start of the pandemic, foreign critics have expressed concern that Chinese authorities could use the codes to surveil citizens.
Codes are “another way to gather information about people to potentially use it against them in ways that there is no legal basis for,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told ABC News in 2020.
But Zhengzhou appears to mark a turning point as foreign and local critics have already voiced concerns about authorities’ use of app data.
“Actually, I would have thought this has happened more routinely in the last couple of years, but apparently this is a defining moment for using health tools to quell dissent,” said Alex Gladstein, director of strategy at the Human Rights Foundation, based in in New York, he wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.
—Alex Gladstein 🌋 ⚡ (@gladstein) June 14, 2022
Prominent voices among the Chinese establishment also spoke out.
“If a local government decides to use health codes for purposes other than the specified purpose of regulating the movement of people, it is a violation of pandemic prevention regulations and undermines public trust and support for the code and prevention of pandemics. The potential threat to our social governance is not worth it,” Hu Xijin, former editor of the state-owned Global Times, posted on Weibo, similar to China’s Twitter, on Tuesday.