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Five officials in China’s central Zhengzhou city were punished on Wednesday for intentionally turning the health codes red on thousands of bank fraud protesters, the local anti-corruption body said.

The move came after a weeks-long online firestorm over city’s alleged misuse of Covid-19 control measures in dealing with social instability.

Chinese depositors across the country found their Henan health code turned red last week, which barred them from travelling to or moving freely inside the province.

The same group of depositors have been fighting for almost two months to retrieve frozen deposits in a bank fraud case that prompted street protests in Zhengzhou last month, the capital of Henan.

The red health code, which some depositors described as “digital handcuffs”, ignited a public uproar in the past two weeks, with scholars questioning its legitimacy and some alleging it violated the law.

The Zhengzhou branch of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s top anti-graft watchdog, launched a probe into the red codes last Friday.

Zhengzhou’s epidemic control centre chief Feng Xianbin and his deputy Zhang Linlin were found to have granted red codes to depositors who travelled or planned to travel to Henan “without authorisation”, which “severely damaged the seriousness of the regulations governing the use of health codes, and caused significant negative social impact”, according to an online statement from the Zhengzhou CCDI.

Feng was held as chiefly responsibility and stripped of his party credentials, while Zhang was demoted.

Two officials, one working for the bureau responsible for the city’s social stability and one involved in its big data operations, as well as an employee of a city-owned data company, were issued with demerits for acting on Feng and Zhang’s orders.

A total 1,317 depositors’ health codes were affected, the Zhengzhou CCDI said.

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