Terrified savers have staged several demonstrations in the city of Zhengzhou, Henan’s provincial capital, 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.
This time, most of the protesters arrived in front of the bank before dawn – some as early as 4am – to avoid being intercepted by the authorities. The crowd, which includes the elderly and children, occupied an imposing staircase in front of the bank, chanting slogans and holding up banners.
“Henan banks, return my savings!” They shouted in unison, many waving Chinese flags, in videos shared by two protesters with CNN.
Using national flags to show patriotism is a common strategy used by protesters in China, where dissent is tightly repressed. The tactic is designed to show that their grievances are aimed only at local governments and that they support and rely on the central government to remedy the situation.
“Against the Henan government’s corruption and violence,” read one banner in English.
A large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was pasted on a pillar at the entrance to the bank.
Hundreds of police and security guards — some in uniform and others in plain clothes — gathered across the street and surrounded the area as protesters shouted “gangsters” at them.
The altercation lasted several hours until after 11am when suddenly lines of security guards rushed 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.
A 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 on the ground by seven or eight guards before being carried away. A 45-year-old man from downtown Wuhan said his shirt was completely torn in the back during the scuffle.
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 brutally dispersed us,” said a depositor from a metropolitan area outside of Henan who earlier protested in Zhengzhou and asked CNN to hide his name for security reasons.
“Why would government employees beat us up? We’re just ordinary people claiming our deposits back, we haven’t done anything wrong,” said the Shandong-based woman.
The protesters were hurled onto dozens of buses and taken to makeshift detention centers across the city — from hotels and schools to factories, according to local people. Some of the injured were escorted to hospitals; Many were released from custody in the late afternoon, according to the population.
CNN has reached out to the Henan provincial government for comment.
The Zhengzhou Business District Police Station — which is responsible for the protest site — hung up on CNN’s call for comment.
Late Sunday night, the Henan Banking Regulatory Authority issued a terse statement saying “relevant departments” were speeding up efforts to verify information on customer funds 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 expected to seek 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 espouses a nationalist vision of leading the country toward a “great rejuvenation.”
Henan authorities are under intense pressure to stop the protests. But depositors remain undeterred. As the problem drags on, many are becoming increasingly desperate to regain their savings.
Huang, the depositor from Wuhan, lost his job in the medical cosmetics industry this year as companies struggled with the pandemic. Still, he is unable to withdraw his life savings — over 500,000 yuan ($75,000) — from a rural bank in Henan.
“As an unemployed person, I can only live on my savings. But I can’t even do that now — how am I supposed to (feed my family)?” said Huang, whose son is in high school.
Shenzhen Sun is struggling to keep his machine factory from bankruptcy after losing his 4 million yuan (US$597,000) bail to a bank in Henan. Without the funds, he cannot even pay his more than 40 employees.
Sun said he was covered in bruises and had a swollen lower back after being repeatedly kicked by security forces at the protest.
“The incident completely turned my perception of the government upside down. I’ve had so much faith in government all my life. After today, I will never trust her again,” he said.