Hundreds of bank depositors clashed with police in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, in a major escalation of a simmering conflict between rural customers and a consortium of likely insolvent local banks that have suspended withdrawals. The conflict earned national headlines in June when a planned demonstration was thwarted because depositors’ health codes were turned red—with some depositors further flagged as criminals or drug addicts—in a flagrant abuse of the country’s coronavirus prevention tool. Over the weekend, the long-delayed protest took place in Zhengzhou. On the steps of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, protesters unfurled banners alleging that the Henan government was in cahoots with local criminal syndicates, proclaiming that “without savings there are no human rights,” and demanding the realization of the Core Socialist Values of freedom, equality, and justice. The protest was violently broken up by men in plainclothes, as large contingents of uniformed police officers looked on. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Pei-Lin Wu reported on the unidentified men who broke up the protest, and interviewed a protester who was on the receiving end of the violence:
It is common practice for police in China to be present at sensitive events without uniforms, instead often wearing prearranged insignia. During past legal proceedings for Chinese human rights lawyers, foreign journalists and diplomats who gather outside the courthouse have occasionally been shoved by unidentified individuals wearing identical yellow smiley face badges.
The unusually bold demonstrations were met by dozens of uniformed police officers as well as a team of heavyset men mostly wearing white tops who all arrived together. Videos of the incidents, shared widely on Chinese social media before censors 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 steps before being carried away. Some were loaded onto buses, often sporting bruises from the clashes.
“I’ve been in shock from yesterday until today,” one protester said in an interview, asking to remain anonymous out of fear of official repercussions for talking to foreign media. He repeatedly described the men as “unidentified” but added “I never thought it could happen that officials could use this kind of violent beating against unarmed and defenseless regular people.” [Source]
Video of the protests and the attack went viral on Chinese social media:
— Sonia (@Sonia51832065) July 10, 2022
The depositors are yelling “黑社会” (mafia or gangsters) at the hundreds of cops marching in.
— Byron Wan (@Byron_Wan) July 10, 2022
— Byron Wan (@Byron_Wan) July 10, 2022
11:24am July 10: plain clothes are taking depositors away.
— Byron Wan (@Byron_Wan) July 10, 2022
Police had sought to quash the protest before it took place. Protestors told Reuters that in the weeks before the conflict, local Party officials pressured them not to protest and accused those who talked to the international media of being spies. One man who set up a group chat for aggrieved depositors was accused of organizing an illegal assembly and authorities even visited his son at his school. Another depositor who was employed in government was forced to resign after authorities learned that he had planned to protest.
The protesting depositors made a number of appeals to authorities past and present. Protesters pasted portraits of Mao Zedong on pillars in front of the bank and also brandished them in group photos. Another group held English-language signs that read, “Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government.” Many of the demonstrators interviewed expressed shock and disillusionment at the violence of the government’s crackdown. “The incident completely overturned my perception of the government. I’ve lived all my life placing so much faith in the government. After today, I’ll never trust it again,” one protestor told CNN. At The New York Times, Zixu Wang and Austin Ramzy reported on a pregnant protestor who was beaten and fears losing her life savings—not to mention her unborn child:
“We came all the way to Zhengzhou to get our money back, and we didn’t want to have conflicts with anyone,” said Feng Tianyu, 31, who lives in the northern city of Harbin. “But the government sent so many people to deal with the unarmed people. We were cheated financially, beaten physically and traumatized mentally.”
Ms. Feng, who is two months pregnant, said men dressed in white shirts pulled her by her hair and arms onto a bus, where police officers beat some of the demonstrators. She said she was eventually taken to a hospital for stomach pains, but was refused admission.
[…] “I’m pregnant and have come this far because this money is really important to me,” she said. “If I don’t get the money back, I can’t have prenatal checks, I can’t have this child, and I can’t continue to support my 2-year-old daughter.” [Source]
The protest was not entirely unsuccessful. Henan officials promised that all accounts with under 50,000 yuan in deposits would be fully reimbursed. Larger accounts, they claimed, would also be restored at an unspecified later date.
Censors quickly quashed open discussions of the incident. The hashtag “#Thousands of Depositors Beaten in Front of People’s Bank of China in Henan#” was censored after proliferating on Weibo. The U.S. embassy in Beijing found the comments section of its official Weibo account flooded with pleas for the embassy to “deploy” American journalists to the scene. In a striking contrast, People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship media outlet, closed the comments section of its Weibo post on the banking scandal. The pleas for foreign intervention are a marked departure from the atmosphere on Weibo and in Henan last summer, when floods killed dozens in the province. Foreign journalists reporting on the floods were targeted for harassment by influential state media accounts. After the disaster, Henan’s provincial government commissioned the construction of a digital surveillance system capable of flagging foreign correspondents’ travel to the province. During this incident, a number of accounts admonished others not to “post to the foreign internet,” a common refrain after social or political scandals in China.
Local police blamed the banking woes on a criminal gang that they claim had been controlling the banks since 2011; a month ago, a similarly shadowy group was blamed for an attack on a group of women perpetrated by thugs in Tangshan. “It is now further confirmed that, since 2011, a criminal gang led by the criminal suspect Lu Yi has used the Henan Xincaifu Group to effectively control several rural banks, by way of cross-shareholding, increasing capital and shares, and manipulating bank executives, among other means,” police said in a statement. The question of how a purported gang of criminals managed to dominate rural Henanese finance for over a decade without repercussions was left unanswered. During an interview with The Guardian’s Vincent Ni, Peking University finance professor Michael Pettis discussed the root cause of the unrest, and predicted that conflagrations of a similar nature may become more common:
“It seems that any long period of soaring real-estate prices and explosive growth in debt creates powerful incentives for excessive risk-taking and even fraud,” said Pettis.
The result, he said, was that as the authorities took steps to rein in the bubble, they were always caught unprepared for the extent of the hidden losses and fraud they discovered in the system.
He added: “Because the past decade in China has seen a real estate bubble of historic proportions, along with among the fastest increases in debt ever seen, I suspect we are going to see a lot more of this in the next few years.” [Source]
In a now-censored essay originally published to WeChat, a blogger bemoaned the quiescence of the Chinese media and the somnolence of the Chinese public:
The media is lying low. I haven’t seen a single report. All that’s left are bloggers’ reposts on Weibo, WeChat Moments, and video channels, but censorship has left the pickings slim.
[…] All that Shinzo Abe stuff, the brouhaha in Sri Lanka—they pale in comparison with what happened in Henan today.
But the media is filled with reports on the former two, while the latter doesn’t merit a word.
[…] People have never responded to wake-up calls—only hammers can rouse them.
[…] Zhengzhou has officially been designated one of the nine “National Central Cities,” but since last year’s floods, it’s become the city most “densely populated” with negative news.
Today, Zhengzhou is once again infamous, reaching new heights of notoriety for generating negative news.
And still, 99.9% of Chinese people have no idea what happened in Zhengzhou today. [Chinese]