Protesting bank depositors in China beaten by crowd as police stand aside

Hundreds of rural bank customers in central China’s Henan Province were swarmed, beaten and dragged by a group of unidentified men on Sunday as they protested against local government corruption amid a freezing of their deposits for several months.

Since mid-April, depositors have been pressuring Henan authorities to help recover savings from at least four small “village” banks that have stopped withdrawals. The campaign gained national attention last month after a planned protest in Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, was thwarted by digital health codes that mysteriously turned red. After a national outcry over the misuse of the coronavirus system, the central government stepped in, punishing five local officials.

Over the weekend, 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 deposit”. No human rights.

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“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 the protests. It is unclear why the banks froze withdrawals, but police are now investigating Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder of four banks, on suspicion of illegal fundraising, according to local media.

It is common for police in China to be present at sensitive events without uniform, often wearing pre-established insignia instead. In previous legal proceedings against Chinese human rights lawyers, journalists and foreign diplomats who gathered outside the courthouse were sometimes jostled by unidentified individuals wearing identical yellow badges.

The unusually bold protests were met by dozens of uniformed police as well as a team of burly men wearing mostly white tops who all arrived together. Videos of the incidents, widely circulated on Chinese social media before censors intervened, showed the officers in blue shirts standing as burly men in white shirts began attacking the crowd. The demonstrators were dragged down a flight of stairs before being swept away. Some were loaded onto buses, often sporting bruises from the clashes.

“I was in shock from yesterday to today,” said one protester in an interview, asking to remain anonymous for fear of official repercussions for speaking to foreign media. He repeatedly described the men as “unidentified”, but added “I never thought that it could happen that officials could use this kind of heavy blows against ordinary unarmed and defenseless 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 defamation,” he said.

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In response to the videos of the scene, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan called on Weibo microblog for the perpetrators of the beatings to be held criminally responsible.

Lao added that an “immune system” of the media and the law should have prevented the depositors’ quest to recover their savings from escalating into such brutal scenes. “This is a concrete demonstration that there is a problem with the immune system: all the normal pathways to seek relief are blocked. The scary thing is that this may just be the beginning. “, she said.

Lost savings are a relatively common cause of protests in China, despite constant efforts by the stability-obsessed Communist Party of China to prevent public unrest. In recent years, a crackdown on poorly regulated financial products and peer-to-peer lending has repeatedly drawn investors to capital to pressure authorities to make up for losses.

Chinese rural banks are currently at the center of a government campaign to reduce debt. These institutions account for about 29% of all high-risk financial entities in the country as of mid-2021, according to the People’s Bank of China.

Faced with increased competition from larger institutions, many smaller banks have tried in recent years to attract depositors by using higher interest rates and signing up customers from across the country for online services. Banking regulations have not been established for internet finance, He Ping, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Finance, told Sanlian Lifeweek magazine.

The Henan Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said Sunday it would speed up the verification process for customers of the four village banks under investigation and announce a resolution to the issue soon.

Still, filers continue to look for ways to pressure the Henan government not to ignore the case, including commenting under the official Weibo account of the US Embassy in China. “Do a quick report on Zhengzhou. Save us,” one user wrote on Sunday.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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