Large Chinese Bank Protest Put Down With Violence

HONG KONG—Hundreds of bank customers demonstrating over frozen deposits were attacked by men in plainclothes in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, marking a violent end to one of China’s largest public protests in recent years.

Images of the clash, which was widely videotaped, spread quickly enough on Chinese social media to outrun the country’s army of internet censors, sparking a wave of online criticism.

Video footage verified by The Wall Street Journal with protesters who were present on Sunday showed large numbers of unidentified men, many of them dressed in white T-shirts, barreling into peaceful crowds demonstrating on the steps of the local branch of China’s central bank.

The clash resulted in several injuries, according to the protesters, who said they were themselves beaten by the men in plainclothes.

The Zhengzhou government didn’t respond to a request for comments.

It was the second protest launched by customers of four Zhengzhou banks after the lenders froze their accounts amid a government investigation into financial misconduct. The first, smaller protest occurred in May and ended with a similar clash.

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Hundreds of protesters in Zhengzhou demanded the return of their frozen deposits outside the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, the central bank.


Photo:

SOCIAL MEDIA/VIA REUTERS

Another protest attempt in June was foiled by the local Zhengzhou authorities, who used a health code designed to control Covid-19 to restrict the movements of petitioning bank customers. The pre-emptive operation, while successful in preventing the protests, drew a wave of criticism nationally and resulted in the firing of several local officials accused of abusing the health codes.

When the protesters regrouped in Zhengzhou over the weekend, local authorities resorted to more traditional means, but those, too, caught the public eye.

The protesters originally planned to return to the local headquarters of the national bank regulator, where they had gathered in May, but on a scouting trip Friday night they found it was heavily patrolled by the police, according to one of the protesters, a Beijing-based businessman who gave his surname Yang.

Instead, Mr. Yang said, many woke up at 4 a.m. on Sunday and gathered before at the entrance of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank. By daylight, hundreds of protesters had arrived, holding banners that demanded the protection of their rights and return of their deposits. Some waved China’s national flag, a tradition among petitioners meant to appeal to the central government for help.

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Plainclothes men in white T-shirts stood on a road near the protest in Zhengzhou.


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HO/Associated Press

Mr. Yang said more protesters participated in the most recent protest because of their frustration with the government’s response.

In May, banking regulators accused the four lenders in Henan, where Zhengzhou is located, of illicit public fundraising, a financial crime. The regulator later referred to the holders of frozen deposits as “consumers of financial products” rather than “bank depositors,” suggesting their money might not be covered by deposit insurance.

Policemen in blue uniforms arrived later in the morning on Sunday, followed by a large squad of young men dressed in white shirts, Mr. Yang said. One online video showed the plainclothes men locking their hands to form a blockade and prevent protesters from leaving.

At around 11 a.m., the plainclothes men crashed into the crowd and started to grab people by force, according to video and witnesses. Mr. Yang said he was dragged onto one of several nearby buses by four plainclothes men, and one of them beat him several times in the head and chest.

“The police just watched from a distance,” he said.

The public fight over the frozen deposits has gone on for an unusually long time in a country where authorities typically move quickly to resolve or crush sources of discontent.

On Sunday, local police said they were further investigating a criminal group they accused of absconding with the deposits. Provincial bank regulators in Henan also released a brief notice saying a plan was being worked out to handle the crisis and asking bank customers to register their personal details.

On Monday, the regulators added that advance payments would be made to the legitimate accounts starting July 15, and first to the smaller ones.

The banks didn’t respond to requests for comments.

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Uniformed security personnel and plainclothes men ran to approach demonstrators before forcibly grabbing some of them.


Photo:

SOCIAL MEDIA/VIA REUTERS

On China’s Twitter-like social-media site Weibo, censors worked in vain to staunch the flow of footage from Sunday’s clash. The images agitated internet users, many of whom were familiar with the bank customers’ cause following the earlier health-code controversy.

“What have the ordinary people done wrong?” one Weibo user wrote on Monday afternoon, reflecting a sentiment common across the site. “They got beaten up after they lost their money?”

Despite years of nationalist messages painting Western governments as hostile to China, some protesters appeared to appeal to foreign audiences by hoisting a banner in English that read, “Against the corruption and violence of the Henan government.”

Some left sarcastic messages on the U.S. Embassy’s official Weibo page intended to indirectly draw attention to the Henan protesters.

“Under no circumstances should you get involved in anything in Henan,” read one comment. “The Henan police will handle them.”

After the clash on Sunday, Mr. Yang said, he was among more than 100 protesters that were taken to a local school, where each of them was made to take a Covid test. After several hours, those who had bought airplane and train tickets to leave the city were let go first.

Mr. Yang, who said he spent a night at a local friend’s house and boarded a high-speed train out of town on Monday morning, suggested it might not be the last time he visits Zhengzhou.

“The government only responds after we protest,” he said.

Write to Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com

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