Plainclothes groups attack protesters at a bank in China’s Henan province

Hundreds of rural bank customers in central China’s Henan province were swarmed, beaten and dragged away by a group of unidentified men on Sunday as they protested local government corruption while their deposits were frozen for months.

Since mid-April, savers have been pressuring Henan authorities to help recover savings from at least four small “village” banks that have suspended withdrawals. The campaign garnered national attention last month after a planned demonstration in Henan’s capital Zhengzhou was thwarted by digital health codes mysteriously turning red. After a nationwide outcry over abuses of the coronavirus control system, the central government stepped in and fined five local officials.

Depositors tried again over the weekend, this time with valid “green” codes. At dawn on Sunday, hundreds of protesters unfurled banners on the steps of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, including one in English that read “No Deposits,” according to videos of the incident circulating on Chinese social media. No human rights.”

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“Chinese dreams of 400,000 depositors in Henan have been shattered,” read another banner, referring to President Xi Jinping’s slogan, which promised a better life for those who work hard and remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Many waved Chinese national flags.

They also accused the government of collaborating with the “mafia” to violently repress protests. It’s unclear why the banks have frozen withdrawals, but police are investigating Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder in four banks, on suspicion of illegal fundraising, according to local media reports.

It is common for the police in China to be present at sensitive events without a uniform, often wearing pre-arranged badges instead. During previous trials for Chinese human rights lawyers, foreign journalists and diplomats who gathered outside the courthouse were occasionally shoved by unidentified people wearing identical yellow smiley face badges.

The unusually bold demonstrations were attended by dozens of uniformed police officers and a team of heavyset men, mostly in white shirts, all arriving together. Videos of the incidents, widely shared on Chinese social media before censorship stepped in, showed the blue-shirted officers standing by as the burly men in white shirts began attacking the crowd. Protesters were dragged down a flight of stairs before being carried away. Some were loaded onto buses, often with bruises from the collisions.

“I was in shock from yesterday to today,” said one protester in an interview, asking not to be identified when speaking to foreign media for fear of official consequences. He repeatedly described the men as “unidentified,” but added, “I never thought it could happen that officers could use this kind of violence against unarmed and defenseless ordinary people.”

“If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I really wouldn’t believe it. In the past, when foreign media reported similar incidents, I always thought it was slander,” he said.

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In response to videos of the scene, Lao Dongyan, a law professor at Tsinghua University, urged the microblog Weibo to hold those behind the beatings criminally responsible.

Lao added that an “immune system” by the media and the law should have prevented savers trying to recover their savings from slipping into such brutal scenes. “This is a concrete indication that there is a problem with the immune system: all normal avenues to seek relief are blocked. The scary thing is that this might just be the beginning,” she said.

Lost savings are a relatively common reason for protests in China, despite ever-present efforts by the stability-obsessed Chinese Communist Party to stave off public unrest. In recent years, crackdowns on poorly regulated financial products and peer-to-peer lending have repeatedly lured investors to the capital to pressure authorities to recover losses.

China’s rural banks are currently the focus of a government campaign to curb debt. According to the People’s Bank of China, these institutions account for about 29 percent of all risky financial companies in the country as of mid-2021.

Faced with increasing competition from larger institutions, many small banks have tried to lure depositors with higher interest rates and attract customers from across the country to online services in recent years. Regulations for banks are not set for internet financing, He Ping, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Finance, told Sanlian Lifeweek magazine.

The Henan Banking and Insurance Regulatory Authority said Sunday it will speed up the verification process for customers of the four village banks under investigation and will soon announce a solution to the problem.

Still, depositors continue to seek ways to pressure the Henan government not to ignore the case, including comments on the United States Embassy in China’s official Weibo account. “Quick report on Zhengzhou. Save us,” one user wrote on Sunday.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.