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Reports: Chinese Authorities Using COVID-Tracking App to Thwart Protesters

A worker wearing a protective suit holds a paper with a QR code for the Beijing health code app at a private coronavirus testing site in Beijing, Jan. 26, 2022.
A worker wearing a protective suit holds a paper with a QR code for the Beijing health code app at a private coronavirus testing site in Beijing, Jan. 26, 2022.

During the early months of the pandemic, the Chinese government 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.

This week, however, media reports surfaced that authorities in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, were now using the required codes to restrict the movement of people upset because local banks had frozen their deposits.

Hundreds of depositors who had lost access to their funds had planned to travel to Zhengzhou on Monday, only to find their health codes had suddenly turned red. This meant they couldn't travel, and the protests fizzled. The red code seemed to target only depositors, according to CNN.

VOA Mandarin asked China's Foreign Ministry for comment on the government's alleged new use for the app but received no comment.

The state-run Global Times ran an editorial on Tuesday saying, "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."

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.

Ever since China began promoting the portable and personalized health codes in response to the coronavirus outbreak, some people have speculated that the technology could be used as a political tool to restrict mobility. The app tracks a user's travel, contact history and biometric data, such as temperature, through a smartphone.

Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, said on Twitter, "I would have actually thought this happened more routinely in the past two years but apparently this is a watershed moment for using health tools to crack down on dissent."

Another comment came from James Palmer, a former Beijing resident who is now deputy editor at Foreign Policy, who tweeted, "This is significant because — afaik (as far as I know) — it's the first clear story we have of the health code system being used for non-Covid political control."

The app uses a QR code to track a user's movements in order to monitor exposure to known cases of the virus, according to a blog post at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Authorities throughout China required residents to provide their names and ID numbers and register for facial recognition to obtain the QR code linked to their identity.

If the QR code glows green, the user has had no contact with an infected person and can move around. An amber code means the user is required to quarantine at home for seven to 14 days, Those with red codes are to be treated and quarantined either at home or in a centralized location, according to CSIS.

It has become routine for Chinese to show the code in order to gain entry to housing compounds, theaters and restaurants, and public transportation.

According to reports by Reuters and other media, the depositors who had planned to protest in Zhengzhou said their most recent COVID-19 test results were negative, and that officials refused to explain why their health codes turned red.

Rina Chandran, a journalist at Thomson Reuters Foundation in India, tweeted, "This is what can happen when the govt controls your data: #China Covid app overnight restricts residents who need the health code to enter buildings and shops, use public transport, or leave the city."

The Henan Provincial Health Commission told The Paper, a state-run news website, that it was "investigating and verifying" the complaints from depositors who received red codes.

Anouk Eigenraam, China correspondent at Het Financieele Dagblad/Algemeen Dagblad, tweeted, "This red health codes is exactly the reason why China will keep this 0 covid alive a long time. It's to useful as a tool for control. I've been saying this for a year and many people kept saying 'but the economy', well as we saw they're very willing to take a hit."