THE PUNISHMENT OF five local officials in Henan province for using a COVID-19 quarantine enforcement app to prevent protesters from travelling shows the capacity for digital repression and Beijing’s desire that local officials’ use of it does not get out of hand.
The punishments of two officials for ordering the tampering with the codes and three for carrying it out followed an investigation by the local discipline and supervision commission in Henan’s provincial capital, Zhengzhou.
Earlier this month, hundreds of people who had lost savings in a Ponzi scam in Henan found their health codes on the smartphone apps used to enforce COVID-19 quarantines suddenly turned red, despite testing negative for COVID-19.
A red code prevents access to public transport, hotels and other facilities. This prevented the citizens from travelling back to Henan to access their frozen bank accounts and petition authorities for redress.
The scam had already been widely shared on social media, and the apps turning red outraged social media users already weary from lockdowns. Posts about family members of depositors being placed in mandatory quarantine after their relative’s health code turned red further fuelled the anger at health codes being turned into what was called certificates of good citizenship.
The public relations damage at a time when Beijing was doubling down on its zero Covid policy soon had state media condemning the alleged abuses by local officials. China Daily described tampering with health codes as ‘ one of the worst forms of abuse of power’.
China’s new digital privacy regime limits the independent misuse of digital technology by China’s vast bureaucracy. However, while central leadership will not impose any limits on its ability to use technology for political ends, it is demonstrating that it will discipline lower-level officials if they do so for their own ends, even if that is a misguided attempt to maintain local public order.
However, the more significant concern remains that the health code system provides higher-level authorities with a repressive tool to track and quarantine arbitrarily any opponent or critic.