Aggrieved depositors have staged several demonstrations in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, over the past two months, but their demands have always been ignored.
More than 1,000 depositors from across China gathered outside the Zhengzhou branch of the country’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, on Sunday, launching the largest protest yet, more than half a dozen protesters told CNN.
This time, most of the protesters arrived in front of the bank early in the morning, some at 4 am, to avoid being caught by the authorities. The crowd, including old people and children, occupied the steps in front of the bank, shouting slogans and raising banners.
“Henan banks, return my deposits!” in videos shared by two protesters with CNN, many chanted in unison, waving Chinese flags.
Using national flags to demonstrate patriotism is a common strategy for protesters in China, where protesters are heavily repressed. This tactic is to show that their grievances are only against the local governments and that they have support and hope for the central government.
The banner, written in English, reads, “Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government.”
A large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong is attached to a pillar at the bank’s entrance.
Across the street, hundreds of police and security personnel – some in uniform, others in civilian clothes – gathered and cordoned off the area, as protesters shouted “gangsters” at them.
The standoff continued for several hours until around 11:00 a.m., when a line of security guards suddenly rushed up the stairs and clashed with the protesters, throwing bottles and other small objects at them.
According to witnesses and social media videos, the scene quickly descended into chaos, with security officers dragging protesters down the stairs and beating those who resisted, including women and the elderly.
A woman from the eastern province of Shandong told CNN that she was knocked to the ground by two security guards, who twisted and injured her arm. Sun, a 27-year-old man from southern Shenzhen, said he was kicked on the ground by seven or eight guards before being taken away. A 45-year-old man from the central city of Wuhan said his shirt was completely turned backwards during the fight.
Many said security forces were shocked by the sudden violence.
“I didn’t expect them to be so violent and brazen this time. There was no communication, no warning before they brutally dispersed us,” said a depositor from a metropolis near Henan who had previously protested in Zhengzhou and asked CNN to cover it. his name due to security concerns.
“Why were the government employees beating us? We are just ordinary people who demand our deposits back, we have not done anything wrong,” said the Shandong woman.
Protesters were put on dozens of buses and sent to temporary holding areas in various parts of the city, from hotels and schools to factories, according to people who were taken there. Some wounded were taken to hospitals; Many were released from jail by noon, they said.
CNN has reached out to the Henan provincial government for comment.
The Zhengzhou Business District Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the protest site, declined a call from CNN seeking comment.
Late Sunday night, Henan’s banking regulator released a brief statement saying “relevant departments” were accelerating efforts to verify information about customer funds at the four rural banks.
“(Authorities) are preparing a plan to resolve the issue, and this plan will be announced soon,” the report said.
The protest comes at a politically sensitive time for the ruling Communist Party, months before its leader Xi Jinping is expected to seek an unprecedented third term at a key session this fall.
The large-scale demonstrations over lost savings and destroyed livelihoods could be seen as a political embarrassment for Xi, who promotes a nationalist vision of leading the country to a “great rejuvenation”.
Henan authorities are under great pressure to end the protests. But depositors remain lazy. As the matter dragged on, many became increasingly desperate to recover their savings.
Huang, a depositor from Wuhan, lost his job in the medical cosmetology industry this year as businesses struggled with the pandemic. However, he is unable to withdraw any of his life savings of more than 500,000 yuan (US$75,000) from a rural bank in Henan.
“Because I’m unemployed, all I can live on is my past savings. But now I can’t even do that — how (should I support my family)?” said Huang, whose son is in high school.
Sun, from Shenzhen, is struggling to save his machinery factory from bankruptcy after losing a 4 million yuan ($597,000) deposit with a Henan bank. Without funds, he cannot even pay the salaries of his more than 40 employees.
Sun said that he was covered in bruises and had a swollen back after being repeatedly kicked by security guards during the protest.
“The incident completely changed my perception of the government. I have lived with such faith in the government all my life. After today, I will not believe in it again,” he said.
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