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Here's why customers at a handful of tiny banks in central China are up in arms

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Customers at a handful of tiny banks in central China are up in arms. Their deposits, together worth nearly $200 million, have been inaccessible for months. And it's looking increasingly like they got scammed. Their anger is being compounded by a chilling step the government appears to have taken to keep them from making noise. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: If you want to travel in China these days or even enter a building, you need to show a special QR code in an app on your phone. It's part of the government's COVID-19 prevention measures. If the code's green, you're good to go. That means you've recently had a negative test and aren't likely to spread the virus.

Forty-seven-year-old Li Ming, who runs a construction business, had a green health code on the morning of June 12. That's when he and his wife boarded a train from their home near the coast to the inland city of Zhengzhou in Henan province.

LI MING: (Through interpreter) We thought we'd go and ask what happened to our money and when we would be able to get it.

RUWITCH: A few months earlier, Li used an app to deposit more than a million dollars in a bank he'd never heard of, called Yuzhou Xin Min Sheng Village Bank. It was far from home, but the interest rates were good. And he reasoned everything's online these days, and Chinese banks are safe. In April, when he logged in, a message appeared saying the system was down. In May, he still couldn't access his account.

MING: (Through interpreter) I started to get nervous, because I do business, and I need money.

RUWITCH: Other depositors were nervous, too. Some were making noise online. Some were gathering in Zhengzhou to petition the provincial government. Last weekend, Li and his wife decided to head there and found a surprise waiting for them.

MING: (Through interpreter) To exit the station, of course, we had to scan our codes. And my wife and I both had red codes.

RUWITCH: Police detained them. And over the course of the next hour or so, Li says seven or eight other people were brought in. They turned out to be depositors from out of town, too. And their local health codes had also suddenly turned red when they got to Zhengzhou.

MING: (Through interpreter) They definitely were doing this to prevent us from going there to complain. It has happened to lots of depositors from lots of different places.

RUWITCH: Chris Yuan, another bank customer, lives in Wuhan. He thought about going to Henan, but he discovered his health code for the province was red before he even left home.

CHRIS YUAN: (Through interpreter) How can Henan province do this to us?

RUWITCH: Henan province's big data administration said they were aware of the case, and the state council in Beijing declined to give an immediate comment. Li Ming reckons at least hundreds of other jilted bank customers have had their health codes manipulated. Wu Qiang, a political analyst based in Beijing, says this is all a result of the unchecked expansion of police powers during the pandemic and another step in China's march toward digital authoritarianism.

WU QIANG: (Through interpreter) Using the health code system to oppress people involved in a financial scam means that a post-pandemic era has arrived. COVID controls over every individual have actually become a digital system to maintain social stability.

RUWITCH: Like Li Ming and Chris Yuan, many depositors think the Henan provincial government has stepped out of line, and hope Beijing can help. How the central government eventually reacts will speak volumes.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shenzhen, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.