Eligible depositors have staged several demonstrations in the city of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, in the last two months, but their demands have always 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 biggest protest to date, more than half a dozen protesters told CNN.
This time, most protesters arrived outside the bank before dawn – some as early as 4am – to avoid being caught by the authorities. The crowd, which includes the elderly and children, occupied an impressive staircase outside the bank, shouting slogans and holding up banners.
“Henan banks, return my savings!” they shouted in unison, many waving Chinese flags, in videos shared with CNN by two protesters.
Using national flags to show patriotism is a common strategy for protesters in China, where dissent is strictly suppressed. The tactic is intended to show that their complaints are only against local authorities, and that they support and trust that the central government seeks redress.
“Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government,” read a banner written in English.
A large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was pasted on a pillar at the entrance to the bank.
Across the street, hundreds of police and security personnel – some in uniform and others in civilian clothes – gathered and surrounded the place, while protesters shouted “gangsters” at them.
The face-off lasted for several hours until after 11 o’clock, when rows of security officers suddenly stormed up the stairs and collided with protesters, who threw bottles and other small objects at them.
The scene quickly turned into chaos, as security officers dragged protesters down the stairs and beat those who resisted, including women and the elderly, according to witnesses and videos on social media.
A woman from eastern Shandong province told CNN that 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, nicknamed Sun, said he was fired by seven or eight guards on the ground before being carried away. A 45-year-old man from the central city of Wuhan said that his shirt was completely torn in the back during the quarrel.
Many said they were shocked by the sudden outbreak of violence by security forces.
“I did not expect them to be so violent and shameless this time. There was no communication, no warning before they brutally dispersed us,” said an insider from a metropolis outside Henan who had protested in Zhengzhou earlier, asking CNN to hide his name for security reasons.
“Why should public servants beat us up? We are just ordinary people asking for our refunds, we did nothing wrong,” the Shandong woman said.
The protesters were thrown on dozens of buses and sent to makeshift detention centers across the city – from hotels and schools to factories, according to people taken there. Some injured were escorted to hospital; many were released from detention late in the afternoon, the people said.
CNN has contacted the provincial government in Henan for comment.
Zhengzhou Business District Police Station – which has jurisdiction over the protest site – hung up on the telephone from CNN and asked for comment.
Late Sunday night, the Henan Banking Authority issued a brief statement, saying that “relevant departments” accelerated efforts to verify customer funds information at the four rural banks.
“(Authorities) come up with a plan to deal with the problem, 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 a unique third term at a key meeting this autumn.
Large-scale demonstrations over lost savings and ruined livelihoods can be seen as a political embarrassment for Xi, who has promoted a nationalist vision of leading the country to “great rejuvenation”.
Authorities in Henan are under enormous pressure to stop the protests. But depositors are still uncertain. As the problem continues, many people have become increasingly desperate to get their savings back.
Huang, the submitter from Wuhan, lost his job in the medical cosmetics industry this year, as companies struggled in the pandemic. Still, he is unable to withdraw any of his savings – over 500,000 yuan ($ 75,000) – from a rural bank in Henan.
“Being unemployed, all I can live on is my previous savings. But I can not even do it now – how should I (support my family)?” said Huang, whose son is in high school.
Sun, from Shenzhen, is struggling to keep its machine factory from bankruptcy after losing its 4 million yuan ($ 597,000) deposit to a Henan bank. He can not even pay his more than 40 employees without the funds.
Sun said he was covered in bruises and had a swollen lower back after being trampled repeatedly by security guards during the protest.
“The incident completely changed my perception of the government. I have lived all my life having so much faith in the government. After today, I will never trust it again,” he said.