Security forces in China attack protesters seeking frozen funds

HONG KONG — They had gathered peacefully, hoisting long banners, waving their fists and shouting “give the money back” to protest the freezing of their savings by local banks in a central Chinese province. Afterwards, guards marched en masse to forcefully disperse the protest, beating protesters, kicking them to the ground and pushing them into buses.

The rare large-scale protests over a banking scandal in Zhengzhou city, Henan province, have escalated in recent weeks, even as the local government has moved aggressively to shut them down, including apparently using apps health code designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to prevent protesters from travelling. But Sunday’s violence marked the toughest response ever by authorities to the efforts of hundreds bank depositors to seek redress.

Photos and videos of plainclothes security officers attacking protesters have been 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 a hashtag viewed 32 million times on Weibo, the Twitter-like service.

Protesters had gathered outside the Zhengzhou branch of the country’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 any disputes with anyone,” said Feng Tianyu, 31, who lives in the northern city of Harbin. from the country. “But the government has sent so many people to deal with unarmed people. We have been cheated financially, physically beaten and mentally traumatized.

Ms Feng, who is two months pregnant, said men in white shirts dragged her by the hair and arms onto a bus, where police beat some of the protesters. She said she was eventually taken to hospital for stomach pains but was refused admission.

Depositors say they are trying to recover money they have placed in rural banks using third-party online platforms. The money has been frozen since April, when police and banking regulators said they were investigating allegations of illegal financial activity.

Depositors across the country attempted to claim their money in person, even as authorities repeatedly shut down their courier groups and tried to stop them from travelling.

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

Deposits in China are guaranteed up to 500,000 Chinese yuan, or about $74,500, but many Henan bank customers have deposited far more. If the Henan government determines that their deposits were part of an illegal fundraising scheme, it could complicate any efforts to recover their money.

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

“I’m pregnant and I’ve 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.”

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

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission has accused Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder of the four banks, of illegally using third-party fund platforms and brokers to lure depositors from across the country, Chinese media reported. State in April. The national regulator has warned customers not to be lured by promises of sky-high returns or to rush into bank deposits through third parties.

Police in Xuchang City, Henan, said on Monday they were investigating a criminal gang led by a man named Lu Yi who they believe used the Henan New Fortune Group to take over banks. rural areas and used fictitious loans to illegally transfer funds. The scheme, which police say began in 2011, included setting up online platforms to promote financial products and solicit new customers, according to police, who added that some people have been arrested.

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

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

Ms. Zhang said she was grabbed by the arms and legs and kicked in the stomach as she was carried out of the protest site. After a brief visit to the hospital, she left town quickly because she feared being detained in Zhengzhou, boarding a train on crutches.

“We only came to make a statement about fairness, nothing else,” she said. “These brutal beatings and repression took us by surprise.”

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