UPDATED at 12:02 P.M. EST on 2022-07-11
Police in the central Chinese province of Henan launched a mass beating operation at the weekend against crowds of protesters who had gathered in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, in protest at a six-week-long freeze on bank withdrawals in the region.
“[The police] called in a bunch of people in civvies to beat people up till they were covered in blood,” an eyewitness surnamed Sun told RFA on Monday. “It was awful … [I saw] a group of men beating up a woman who was bleeding from the eye.”
A video of the scene posted to social media showed hundreds of police in black and white T-shirts charging a crowd of some 3,000 bank depositors outside the Zhengzhou branch of the People’s Bank of China in the early hours of Sunday.
The video, uploaded to the Henan Rural Bank Rights Protection in Progress Twitter account, showed protesters shouting “Henan Bank, give me back my money!” and then calling on local ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) financial regulator Qin Hanfeng to come out and talk to them.
At this point, armed police fired shots into the air, and the crowd retreated, shouting “[They’re] arresting [people]!” interspersed by further gunshot.
Many were holding up placards and banners demanding the right to withdraw their funds from local branches of rural banks, in a recurring protest that has been largely unreported by China’s state-controlled news outlets.
Sun said the people protesting had put their life-savings into what turned out to be criminal ventures.
“They worked hard and saved so much money, and wound up handing over to a den of thieves,” she said.
Other video footage showed gangs of men in white T-shirts crowding around people to beat them up methodically, and hundreds of protesters being detained and put on board dozens of buses.
An officer who answered the phone at the Zhengzhou municipal police department didn’t confirm that shots were fired.
“Where did you see this? Are you asking if it’s true or not? I’m not aware of this, comrade,” the officer said. “Sometimes police do fire warning shots in certain situations.”
Asked about the whereabouts of the detained protesters, the officer replied: “We can’t answer this, comrade. If you leave a number, I can register your inquiry and get back to you.”
No reply had been received by the time of writing, however.
In response to the weekend protests, the Henan Banking and Insurance Regulatory Bureau and Henan Provincial Local Financial Regulatory Bureau announced Monday that some bank customers would receive advance payments beginning on July 15.
Shangcai Huimin Rural Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Rural Bank, and Kaifeng New Oriental Rural Bank will issue payments to customers with combined account amounts of less than 50,000 yuan (U.S. $ 7,500), while those with more than that amount will be paid later, the announcement said.
Sporadic protests have been occurring for weeks, with depositors sometimes prevented from traveling to protest sites when their “health code” COVID-19 monitoring app suddenly turns red.
In one video from May, protesters lie on the ground in a “die in,” screaming repeatedly while holding up slogans; in another, they kneel and wail, begging for access to their own money.
Some 413,000 people have been left with no access to their money by the freeze on withdrawals, which the authorities say is linked to a massive police investigation into the businessman Lu Yi and his Henan New Fortune Group.
The Henan Provincial Local Financial Supervision Bureau said in a statement on its website on Sunday that the “relevant departments are speeding up the verification of customer information at four rural banks … so as to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the general public.”
According to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, the rural banks started in 2006 as part of China’s rural revitalization plan, offering high interest on deposits.
Many rural savers, attracted by the high interest rates on deposits and referrals from salespeople, placed their entire life savings in these high-interest deposit products, it said.
By the end of 2021, there were 1,651 village and town banks in China, accounting for one-third of banking and institutions. Anyone wishing to set up a town-level village bank requires only 1 million yuan (U.S. $149,300) in registered capital, compared with 1 billion yuan (U.S. $149.3 million) for private banks nationwide.
The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission recently reminded people that if any financial product promises a return of more than 6 percent, there should be a question mark over it, while anything offering a return of eight percent or more is “extremely risky.”
Anyone investing in a product offering a 10-percent return should be prepared to lose all of their capital, the Ming Pao quoted the commission as saying in an apparent reference to the products offered by the Yuzhou Xinminsheng Rural Bank, Kaifeng New Oriental Rural Bank, Henan Shangcai Huimin Rural Bank, and Henan Tuocheng Huanghuai Rural Bank, which offered higher rates of return that China’s four state-owned banks.
Many were prompted to transfer their entire savings, and even those of their parents, to the rural banks, only to find that withdrawals were blocked from April 18, 2022.
Many of the deposits were made via third parties, locking in funds for three or five years, at an annual interest rate of 4.8 percent.
Some of the banks’ online transaction systems had been manipulated by Henan New Fortune Group, but none of the depositors had access to that information at the time.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This article has been updated to include banking authorities’ announcement on Monday of payments to customers of certain banks.