The anguished petitioners have staged several protests in Zhengzhou City, the provincial capital of Henan, over the past two months, but their demands have invariably fallen on deaf ears.
On Sunday, 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, to kick off their biggest protest yet, more than half a dozen protesters at CNN.
This time, most protesters arrived outside the bank before dawn – some as early as 4 a.m. – to avoid being intercepted by authorities. The crowd, which includes elderly people and children, occupied a towering staircase outside the bank, chanting slogans and waving banners.
“Henan banks, return my savings!” they shouted in unison, many waving Chinese flags, in videos shared with CNN by two protesters.
Using national flags to display patriotism is a common strategy for protesters in China, where dissent is strictly suppressed. This tactic is intended to show that their grievances are only with local governments, and that they support and rely on the central government to seek redress.
“Against Henan government corruption and violence,” read a banner written in English.
A large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong has been stuck to a pillar at the entrance to the bank.
Across the street, hundreds of police and security personnel – some in uniform and some in civilian clothes – gathered and surrounded the site, as protesters shouted “gangsters” at them.
The standoff lasted for several hours until after 11 a.m. when rows of security guards suddenly charged down the stairs and clashed with protesters, who threw bottles and other small objects at them.
The scene quickly descended into chaos, as security guards dragged protesters down the stairs and beat those who resisted, including women and the elderly, according to witnesses and social media videos.
A woman in the eastern province of Shandong told CNN she was pushed to the ground by two security guards, who twisted and injured her arm. A 27-year-old man from the southern city of Shenzhen, surnamed Sun, said he was kicked by seven or eight ground guards before being carried away. A 45-year-old man from downtown Wuhan said his shirt was completely torn in the back during the fight.
Many said they were shocked by the sudden outburst of violence by the security forces.
“I didn’t expect them to be so violent and shameless this time. There was no communication, no warning before they abruptly dispersed us,” one metropolis affiant said. outside Henan who had previously protested in Zhengzhou and asked CNN to conceal his identity. name for security reasons.
“Why would government employees beat us up? We are just ordinary people asking for our deposits back, we haven’t done anything wrong,” the Shandong woman said.
Protesters were thrown onto dozens of buses and sent to makeshift detention sites across the city – from hotels and schools to factories, according to who was taken there. Some injured were escorted to hospitals; many were released from custody by late afternoon, the people said.
CNN has contacted the Henan provincial government for comment.
The Zhengzhou Business District Police Station – which has jurisdiction over the protest site – hung up on CNN’s call seeking comment.
Late Sunday night, Henan’s banking regulator issued a terse statement, saying “relevant departments” were speeding up efforts to verify customer fund information at the four rural banks.
“(Authorities) are developing a plan to address the issue, which will be announced in the near future,” the statement said.
The protest comes at a politically sensitive time for the ruling Communist Party, just months before its leader Xi Jinping is seeking an unprecedented third term in a key meeting this fall.
Large-scale protests over lost economies and ruined livelihoods could be seen as a political embarrassment for Xi, who has promoted a nationalist vision of leading the country towards “great rejuvenation”.
Authorities in Henan are under enormous pressure to stop the protests. But depositors are not deterred. As the problem drags on, many have become increasingly desperate to recover their life savings.
Huang, the depositor from Wuhan, lost his job in the medical cosmetology industry this year as companies battled the pandemic. Yet he is unable to withdraw any of his savings – more than 500,000 yuan ($75,000) – from a rural bank in Henan.
“Being unemployed, I can only live on my past savings. But I can’t even do that now – how am I supposed to (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 his 4 million yuan ($597,000) deposit with a bank in Henan. He can’t even pay his 40+ employees without the funds.
Sun said he was covered in bruises and had a swollen lower back after being repeatedly stomped on by security guards during the protest.
“The incident completely changed my perception of the government. I have spent my whole life trusting the government so much. After today, I will never trust it again,” he said.