Protests in Zhengzhou and Henan province: China cracks down on mass demonstration of bank depositors demanding the return of their savings

Worried depositors have staged several demonstrations in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, over the past two months, but their demands have consistently fallen on deaf ears.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 depositors from across China gathered outside the country’s Zhengzhou branch of the country’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, to launch their biggest protest yet, more than half a dozen protesters told CNN.

The demonstration is one of the largest in China since the pandemic, with domestic travel limited by various Covid movement restrictions. Last month, Zhengzhou authorities even resorted to interfering with Covid’s digital health code system to restrict depositors’ movements and disrupt their planned protests, sparking a nationwide outcry.

This time, most of the protesters arrived at the bank before dawn, some as early as 4 am, to avoid being intercepted by the authorities. The crowd, which included old people and children, took up the imposing staircase outside the bank, shouting slogans and holding banners.

“Henan banks, return my savings!” they shouted in unison, many waving Chinese flags, in videos shared by two protesters on CNN.

Using national flags to show patriotism is a common strategy for protesters in China, where dissent is tightly suppressed. This tactic is meant to show that their grievances are only for local governments, and that they support and rely on the central government to seek redress.

“Against corruption and violence by the Henan provincial government,” the banner read in English.

A large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was plastered on a pole at the entrance to the bank.

Across the street, hundreds of police and security personnel – some in uniform and others in civilian clothes – gathered and surrounded the site as protesters yelled “thugs” at them.

The Chinese-language banner reads:

Brutal suppression

The throw-in continued for several hours until, after 11 a.m., ranks of the security forces suddenly climbed the stairs and collided with protesters who threw bottles and other small objects at them.

The scene quickly descended into chaos as security personnel dragged protesters down the stairs and beat up those who resisted, including women and the elderly, according to witnesses and social media videos.

A woman from the eastern province of Shandong told CNN that two guards knocked her to the ground, sprained her and injured her arm. A 27-year-old man from the southern city of Shenzhen, surnamed Sun, said seven or eight guards kicked him on the ground before taking him away. A 45-year-old man from the central city of Wuhan said his shirt was completely torn at the back during the fight.

Many said they were shocked by the sudden surge in violence by the security forces.

“I did not expect that this time they would be so cruel and shameless. There was no communication, no warning before they brutally dispersed us,” said one contributor from a metropolis outside of Henan who had earlier protested in Zhengzhou and asked CNN to withhold his name for security reasons.

“Why are government officials beating us? We are just ordinary people demanding the return of our deposits, we have done nothing wrong,” said a woman from Shandong.

Video taken by witnesses at the scene shows protesters being forcibly taken away by plainclothes security personnel.

According to the people brought there, the protesters were forced into dozens of buses and sent to makeshift detention facilities across the city, from hotels and schools to factories. Some of the wounded were taken to hospitals; many were released from custody in the late afternoon, people say.

CNN has reached out to the Henan provincial government for comment.

The Zhengzhou business district police station in charge of the protest site hung up on a CNN call asking for comment.

Late Sunday, the Henan provincial banking regulator issued a brief statement saying that “relevant departments” will intensify efforts to verify customer funds at four rural banks.

“(Authorities) are developing a plan to address this issue, which will be announced shortly,” the statement said.

Police in Xuchang, a city neighboring Zhengzhou, said in a statement late Sunday that they had recently arrested members of an alleged “criminal gang” who were accused of effectively taking control of rural banks in Henan province starting in 2011 by using their shareholdings and “manipulating bank executives”.

The suspects were also accused of illegally transferring funds through fictitious loans, police said, adding that some of their funds and assets were seized and frozen.

shattered lives

The protest comes at a politically sensitive time for the ruling Communist Party, just months before its leader Xi Jinping is expected to run for an unprecedented third term at a key meeting this fall.

Large-scale demonstrations over lost savings and ruined livelihoods could be seen as a political embarrassment for Xi, who is promoting a nationalist vision of leading the country towards a “great rejuvenation.”

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Henan provincial authorities are under enormous pressure to stop the protests. But this does not scare investors. As the problem drags on, many are increasingly desperate to get their savings back.

Huang, a contributor from Wuhan, lost his job in the medical cosmetology industry this year as businesses battled the pandemic. However, he is unable to withdraw any of his savings – more than 500,000 yuan ($75,000) – from a rural bank in Henan province.

“Being unemployed, all I can live on is my past savings. But now I can’t even do that – how am I supposed to (support my family)?” said Huang, whose son is in high school.

Sun, from Shenzhen, is struggling to keep his machinery plant from going bankrupt after losing his 4 million yuan ($597,000) deposit in a Henan provincial bank. He can’t even pay his over 40 employees without funds.

Sun said he was covered in bruises and had a swollen lower back after he was repeatedly trampled on by guards during the protest.

“This incident completely changed my idea of ​​government. I’ve had so much faith in government all my life. After today, I will never trust him again,” he said.

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