Plain-clothed groups attack bank protesters in China’s Henan province

Plain-clothed groups attack bank protesters in China's Henan province
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Hundreds of rural bank customers in central China’s Henan province were dragged, beaten and dragged by a group of unidentified men on Sunday as they protested local government corruption during months of freezing their deposits.

Since mid-April, depositors have been pressuring Henan authorities to help recover savings from at least four small “village” banks that have stopped withdrawals. The campaign gained national attention last month after a planned demonstration in Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, was blocked by digital health codes that were mysteriously turning red. After a nationwide outcry over the abuse of the coronavirus response system, the central government stepped in and punished five local officials.

Over the weekend, depositors tried again, this time with valid “green” codes. At dawn on Sunday, hundreds of protesters unfurled placards claiming corruption on the stairs of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, one of them in English, “No deposit. No human rights,” according to videos of the incident shared on Chinese social media.

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Referring to President Xi Jinping’s slogan promising a better life for those who work hard and remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, another banner said, “The dreams of 400,000 depositors in Henan, China have been shattered.” Many waved Chinese national flags.

They also accused the government of working with the “mafia” to violently suppress the protests. It’s not entirely clear why the banks froze withdrawals, but local media reported that police are investigating Henan New Fortune Group, a shareholder of the four banks, on suspicion of illegal fundraising.

It is common practice in China for the police to be without uniforms on sensitive occasions, instead wearing pre-arranged insignia. During past legal proceedings for Chinese human rights lawyers, foreign journalists and diplomats gathered outside the courthouse, they were occasionally shoved by unidentified individuals who wore the same yellow smiley face badges.

The unusually bold demonstrations were greeted by dozens of uniformed police officers, as well as a team of burly men, all dressed in mostly white tops, who came together. Videos of the events, which were widely shared on Chinese social media before censorship kicked in, showed officers in blue shirts standing by as burly men in white shirts began to attack the crowd. Protesters were dragged down one step before being taken away. Some were loaded onto buses, often with bruises from the conflict.

“I was in shock from yesterday to today,” one protester said in an interview, and asked to remain anonymous, fearing the official repercussions of speaking to foreign media. He repeatedly described the men as “unidentified”, but added that “I never thought that authorities could use such violent beatings against unarmed and defenseless ordinary people.”

“If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I wouldn’t really believe it. In the past, when foreign media reported events like this, I always thought it was slander,” he said.

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In response to videos of the crime scene, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan called on the microblog Weibo to hold those behind the beatings criminally responsible.

Lao added that an “immune system” of the media and the law must prevent depositors’ quest to get their savings back from falling into such brutal scenes. “This is a tangible indication that there is a problem with the immune system: All normal ways to seek help are blocked. The scary thing is that this may be just the beginning,” he said.

The loss of savings is a relatively common cause of protests in China, despite the massive efforts of the stability-obsessed Chinese Communist Party to stem public unrest. In recent years, pressures on poorly regulated financial products and peer-to-peer loans have repeatedly drawn investors into capital to pressure authorities to recoup losses.

China’s rural banks are now the focus of the government’s campaign to rein in debt. According to the People’s Bank of China, these institutions make up about 29 percent of all high-risk financial institutions in the country by mid-2021.

Faced with increasing competition from larger institutions, many small banks have sought in recent years to attract depositors using higher interest rates, as well as enroll customers from across the country for online services. Regulations for banks were not created for internet financing, said He Ping, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Finance. said Sanlian Lifeweek magazine.

The Henan Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said on Sunday that the four village banks under investigation will speed up the verification process for their customers and will soon announce a solution to the problem.

Still, depositors continue to seek ways to pressure the Henan government not to ignore the case, including commenting under the official Weibo account of the United States Embassy in China. “Quickly report on Zhengzhou. Save us,” one user wrote on Sunday.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.

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