Over the weekend, the depositors tried again, this time with valid “green” codes. At daybreak on Sunday, according to videos of the incident shared on Chinese social media, hundreds of protesters unfurled banners alleging corruption on the steps of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, including one in English that declared “No deposits. No human rights.”
“The Chinese dreams of 400,000 depositors in Henan have been shattered,” read another banner, referring to President Xi Jinping’s slogan promising a better life for those who work hard and remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Many waved Chinese national flags.
They also accused the government of working with the “mafia” to violently suppress protests. It’s unclear exactly why the banks have frozen withdrawals, but police are currently investigating Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder of four banks, on suspicion of illegal fundraising, according to local media reports.
It is common practice for police in China to be present at sensitive events without uniforms, instead often wearing prearranged insignia. During past legal proceedings for Chinese human rights lawyers, foreign journalists and diplomats who gather outside the courthouse have occasionally been shoved by unidentified individuals wearing identical yellow smiley face badges.
The unusually bold demonstrations were met by dozens of uniformed police officers as well as a team of heavyset men mostly wearing white tops who all arrived together. Videos of the incidents, shared widely on Chinese social media before censors stepped in, showed the blue-shirted officers standing by as the burly men in white shirts began attacking the crowd. Protesters were dragged down a flight of steps before being carried away. Some were loaded onto buses, often sporting bruises from the clashes.
“I’ve been in shock from yesterday until today,” one protester said in an interview, asking to remain anonymous out of fear of official repercussions for talking to foreign media. He repeatedly described the men as “unidentified” but added “I never thought it could happen that officials could use this kind of violent beating against unarmed and defenseless regular people.”
“If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I really wouldn’t believe it. When foreign media reported similar incidents in the past, I always thought it was slander,” he said.
In response to videos of the scene, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan called on microblog Weibo for those behind the beatings to be held criminally responsible.
Lao added that an “immune system” of media and the law should have prevented the depositors’ quest to retrieve their savings from descending into such brutal scenes. “This is a concrete display of there being a problem with the immune system: All normal pathways to seek relief are blocked. What’s scary is this might just be the start,” she said.
Lost savings are a relatively common cause of protests in China, despite pervasive efforts by the stability-obsessed Chinese Communist Party to prevent public unrest. In recent years, crackdowns on poorly regulated financial products and peer-to-peer lending have repeatedly drawn investors to the capital to pressure authorities to compensate for losses.
China’s rural banks are currently the focal point of a government campaign to rein in debt. These institutions make up about 29 percent of all the high-risk financial entities in the country as of mid-2021, according to the People’s Bank of China.
Facing increased competition from larger institutions, many small banks have in recent years attempted to attract depositors using higher interest rates and also signing up clients from across the country for online services. The regulations for the banks were not set up for internet finance, He Ping, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Finance, told Sanlian Lifeweek magazine.
Henan’s Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said on Sunday that it will accelerate the verification process for customers of the four village banks under investigation and will announce a resolution to the problem soon.
Yet depositors continue to look for ways to pressure the Henan government not to ignore the case, including commenting beneath the official Weibo account of the United States Embassy to China. “Quickly report on Zhengzhou. Save us,” one user wrote Sunday.
Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.