Security Forces in China Attack Protesters Seeking Frozen Funds

HONG KONG — They had gathered peacefully, raising long banners, pumping their fists and shouting “give the money back” to protest the freezing of their savings by local banks in a central Chinese province. The guards then marched en masse to break up the demonstration by force, beating protesters, kicking them to the ground and pushing them towards buses.

The rare large-scale protests over a banking scandal in the city of Zhengzhou, Henan province, have increased in recent weeks, even as the local government has taken aggressive steps to shut them down, including apparently using health code apps aimed at to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to stop protesters from traveling. But Sunday’s violence marked the harshest response yet by authorities to the efforts of hundreds of bank depositors to seek redress.

Photos and videos of plainclothes security officers attacking protesters were shared on Chinese social media, sparking anger over the use of force. While protest images are often quickly censored in China, images from Zhengzhou were still widely available on Monday, with one hashtag viewed 32 million times on Weibo, the Twitter-like service.

The protesters had gathered outside the Zhengzhou branch of the nation’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China. Protesters interviewed by phone said dozens of people had been sent to local hospitals after being beaten.

“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. They cheated us financially, beat us physically, and traumatized us mentally.”

Ms. Feng, who is two months pregnant, said that men wearing white shirts put her on a bus by her hair and arms, where police officers beat some of the protesters. She said that she was eventually taken to a hospital for stomach pains, but she was denied admission.

Depositors say they are trying to get back the money they put into rural banks using third-party online platforms. The money has been frozen since April, when police and bank regulators said they were investigating allegations of illegal financial activity.

Depositors across the country have tried to go and demand their money in person, even as authorities repeatedly shut down their messaging groups and tried to prevent them from traveling.

While protests remain focused on four rural banks, all in Henan province, China’s broader economic slowdown and the widening impact of Covid lockdowns could potentially expose more institutions and test the insurance mechanism. of relatively new deposits in the country.

Deposits in China are guaranteed up to 500,000 Chinese yuan, about $74,500, but many clients of Henan banks deposited much more. If the Henan government determines that your deposits were part of an illegal fundraising scheme, it could complicate any effort to get your money back.

Many of the protesters said they put their life savings in the banks and are now destitute. Ms. Feng said that she deposited about $165,000, which was all her savings plus her father’s pension money.

“I am pregnant and I have come this far because this money is very important to me,” she said. “If I don’t get my money back, I can’t have prenatal checkups, I can’t have this child, and I can’t keep supporting my 2-year-old daughter.”

After reports of the protest emerged on Chinese social media, Henan banking regulators said on Sunday they were developing a plan to handle the crisis affecting the four banks and to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of the public.” but they did not offer immediate details.

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission accused the Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder of the four banks, of illegally using third-party platforms and fund brokers to attract depositors from across the country, state media reported in April. The national regulator warned customers not to be seduced by promises of extremely high yields or hastily make bank deposits through third parties.

Police in Henan’s Xuchang city said on Monday they were investigating a criminal gang headed by a man named Lu Yi, who they say may have used the Henan New Fortune Group to amass control of rural banks and used fictitious loans to illegally transfer funds. The scheme, which police say began in 2011, included the creation of online platforms to promote financial products and solicit new customers, according to police, adding that some people have been arrested.

But several protesters said they felt police and regulators had done too little to protect their interests and worried they might never see their money. Some, pointing out that the alleged financial irregularities date back more than a decade, raised questions about whether authorities had ignored earlier signs of fraud. Public pressure is now their only recourse, protesters said in interviews.

“A single person is really too powerless; we attract government attention only when we all get together,” said Zhang Xia, 38, an administrative assistant from the eastern city of Hangzhou.

Ms. Zhang said that she was grabbed by her arms and legs and kicked in the stomach as she was led away from the protest site. After a brief visit to the hospital, she quickly left town because she feared she would be detained in Zhengzhou and boarded a train with crutches.

“We just came to make a statement about fairness, nothing more,” he said. “These brutal beatings and repression took us by surprise.”

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