Since April, four rural banks in China’s central Henan province have frozen millions of dollars worth of deposits
, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of customers in an economy already battered by draconian Covid lockdowns.
Anguished depositors have staged several demonstrations in the city of Zhengzhou, 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 launch their largest protest yet, more than half a dozen protesters told CNN.
The demonstration is among the largest China has seen since the pandemic, with domestic travel limited by various Covid restrictions on movement. Last month, Zhengzhou authorities even resorted to tampering
with the country’s digital Covid health-code system to restrict the movements of depositors and thwart their planned protest, sparking a nationwide outcry.
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 included the elderly and children, occupied a flight of imposing stairs outside the bank, chanting slogans and holding up 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. The tactic is meant to show that their grievances are only against local governments, and that they support and rely on the central government to seek redress.
“Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government,” a banner written in English read.
A large portrait of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was pasted on a pillar at the entrance of the bank.
Across the street, hundreds of police and security personnel — some in uniforms and others in plain clothes — assembled and surrounded the site, as protesters shouted “gangsters” at them.
The face-off lasted for several hours until after 11 a.m., when rows of security officers suddenly charged up the stairs and clashed with protesters, who threw bottles and other small objects at them.
The scene quickly descended into chaos, as security officers dragged protesters down the stairs and beat those who resisted, including women and the elderly, according to witnesses and social media videos.
One woman from eastern Shandong province 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 guards on the ground before being carried away. A 45-year-old man from the central city of Wuhan said his shirt was completely torn at the back during the scuffle.
Many said they were shocked by the sudden burst of violence by the security forces.
“I did not expect them to be so violent and shameless this time. There was no communication, no warning before they brutally dispersed us,” said one depositor from a metropolis outside Henan who had protested in Zhengzhou previously, and who requested CNN conceal his name due to security concerns.
“Why would government employees beat us up? We’re only ordinary people asking for our deposits back, we did nothing wrong,” the Shandong woman said.