Chinese bank depositors face police in angry protest

BEIJING — A large mob of angry Chinese bank depositors faced police on Sunday, some of whom were beaten as they were being taken away, in a case that drew attention due to previous attempts to use a COVID-19 tracking app to prevent them from mobilizing excited.

Hundreds of people held up banners and chanted slogans on the broad front steps of a branch of the Chinese central bank in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan province, about 620 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Video captured by a protester shows plainclothes security teams being pelted with water bottles and other objects while attacking the crowd.

Videos later released on social media show an unclear number of protesters being pushed forward and down the stairs one by one by security teams in plain white or black T-shirts. Calls to the police in Zhengzhou City and Henan Province went unanswered.

The protesters are among thousands of customers who have opened accounts at six rural banks in Henan and neighboring Anhui province, which have offered higher interest rates. They later found they could not withdraw their funds after media reports that the head of the banks’ parent company was on the run and wanted for financial crimes.

“We came today wanting to get our savings back because I have elderly people and children at home and the inability to withdraw savings has seriously affected my life,” said a woman from Shandong province, who gave only her last name, Zhang , for fear of retribution.

What had been a local scandal became a national incident last month over abuse of the COVID-19 tracking app. Many who headed to Zhengzhou to demand action from regulators found their health status had turned red on the app, preventing them from travelling. Some reported that after checking into their hotel, they were questioned by police about why they had come to town. Five officials from Zhengzhou were later fined.

Protesters gathered outside the People’s Bank of China building in Zhengzhou before dawn on Sunday. Police vehicles with flashing lights can be seen in videos taken in the early morning darkness. The police cordoned off the road, and by 8:00 a.m., mass movement had started on the other side, Zhang said.

In addition to uniformed police officers, there were teams of men in plain T-shirts. A bank regulator and a local government official came, but their attempts to speak to the crowd were shouted down. Zhang and another protester, a Beijing man surnamed Yang, told the AP the protesters had heard from the officers before and didn’t believe what they were saying. Yang declined to be given his full name, fearing pressure from the authorities.

Police then told the protesters from a vehicle with a megaphone that they were an illegal gathering and would be arrested and fined if they did not leave. At around 10 a.m., the men in T-shirts charged the crowd and dispersed them. Zhang said she saw women being dragged down the steps of the bank’s entrance.

Zhang herself was beaten and said she asked the officer, “Why did you hit me?” According to her, he replied, “What’s wrong with hitting you?”

Yang said he was beaten by two security officers, including one who fell from the stairs and in the chaos mistakenly thought Yang hit or pushed him.

“Although repeated protests and demonstrations don’t necessarily have a big impact, I think it’s still helpful if more people learn about us and understand or sympathize with us,” Yang said. “Every time you do it, you can make a difference. Even though you get hit, they can’t really hurt you, can they?”

The protesters were bussed to different locations, where Zhang said they were forced to sign a letter guaranteeing they would not gather again.

Late Sunday, Henan’s banking regulators published a brief notice on their website that the authorities are speeding up screening of customer funds in four of the banks and drafting a plan to resolve the situation to protect the rights and interests of the public.