China: National Pandemic Prevention policy Used as a Private Weapon
The Chinese government effectively stopped a bank run by identifying individuals planning to withdraw funds and restricting their movement by applying false COVID tags.
Here’s what happened:
Thousands of people who traveled to Zhengzhou over the past two months to withdraw funds after at least four major banks in the Henan province froze an estimated $1.5 billion in deposits were shocked when their health QR codes spontaneously turned red. The codes, which must be scanned to enter public venues and utilize public transportation, flagged them as having COVID or being high-risk for infection. Users with red codes are unable to enter public venues or utilize public transportation.
Liu, 39, traveled from Beijing to Zhengzhou in June to access his savings account after having been locked out of his bank since April. His QR code flashed red at a train station in Zhengzhou despite having tested negative for coronavirus the day previous.
“Sooner or later, this sort of thing is going to happen to us all,” wrote an anonymous social media user. “National pandemic prevention policy has been reduced to a private weapon.”
China’s health QR code system tracks individuals using mobile phones and social media apps (including WeChat). The goal is to alert individuals when they may have come into contact with the virus and to prevent infected individuals from traveling – but as has already been demonstrated – the potential for misuse is high.
“The health code should have been used to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but now it has deviated from its original role and become something like a good citizen certificate,” laments Qiu, a teacher in Henan province.
Qiu’s QR code flashed red shortly after he messaged a friend on WeChat asking if he had been affected by the bank freeze. Qiu’s wife, who is not a depositor with said bank, did not show a red code when he used her phone to scan the same QR code from Zhengzhou. “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.”
The system itself is controversial as it relies on massive amounts of personal data including location, travel history, health status, and recent contacts. In May 2020, Beijing announced four sets of information that would need to be collected in order for the QR code system to function properly:
- Personal information including name, gender, ethnicity, government ID, address, phone number, blood type, and health history.
- Physiological information such as body temperature, symptoms, recent contacts, and location information regarding COVID hot spots.
- Travel history including former residences, areas visited, and present location.
- Health certification information resulting from assessments conducted by health officials and recent COVID tests.
An updated set of information released in December 2020 included financial data held by banks and other institutions.
As you can see, the information needed is far-reaching but vague, giving the program grounds to collect whatever information is deemed necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This sort of tool in the hands of the Chinese government can be nothing other than a weapon of suppression.
“The health code, like many algorithmic-based systems in China and around the world, lacks transparency. Exactly how companies designed the app and the criteria they use to categorize people remain unclear,” argues Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer whose health code turned red just as he was about to depart for Shanghai to visit the mother of a journalist who was imprisoned for reporting on the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
“It is also hard to know whether the system allows local governments to tamper with it as a means to prevent protests,” adds Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The opacity of the health code, the ability of it to arbitrarily control people’s movement while giving people few means to effectively appeal the app’s decision, makes it an especially abusive system.”