© Reuters. Police officers stand near protesters taking part in a protest against the freezing of deposits of some rural banks, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China May 23, 2022, in this screen are excerpted from a video obtained by Reuters. Broadcast via REUTERS
By Martin Quin Pollard
BEIJING (Reuters) – Jack Yao, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, never wanted to be an activist.
Having escaped rural poverty and joining the middle class in Beijing through decades of study and work, he sees himself as a patriotic descendant of successful party rule.
However, the 43-year-old’s life has been turned upside down ever since he and thousands of others suddenly lost access to their savings in a bank fraud scandal that broke out on Monday. April, focused on a series of rural lenders in Henan and Anhui provinces.
After venting his anger on social media and discussing protests with depositors to lobby the authorities for refunds, he says he has come under the radar of social surveillance. government high technology.
The outcry from Yao and thousands of bank depositors across the country comes at a sensitive time for China, as Xi Jinping is set to secure a third term at the party congress. Sunday’s input will secure his place as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Unusually prolonged and public dissent, part of a broader wave of public anger, from mortgage strikes to COVID-19 containment protests, persists. despite a security crackdown. It provides a glimpse into the time some frustrated citizens will have to go through as they assume the world’s strongest security.
“I can usually get more than a dozen phone calls a day from the police, day and night, and fear that I will never get it back,” said Yao, who now works at a state-owned company. saved more than 10 million yuan (1.4 USD). million).
“Their key message is – don’t make trouble,” he added. He says he’s frustrated by the state he reveres: “When you try to defend your rights, they try to maintain social stability.”
The Ministry of Public Security of China, the local governments of Henan and Anhui, and police departments in those provinces and Beijing did not respond to requests for comment on this article. Rural banks are being investigated and the national banking regulator CBIRC has not responded.
Chinese authorities see social stability as the foundation for a prosperous future and reject human rights complaints such as Western propaganda and interference in internal affairs.
Stories told to Reuters by Yao and 14 other bank depositors, who used social media to discuss and coordinate their recovery efforts, reveal the size and scope of their operations. China’s high-tech security apparatus.
Their agile tactics and clear pursuit of goals also exposed the system’s limitations.
Strategic adaptation measures include breaking up into dozens of smaller WeChat groups that are harder to track, communicating between groups through encrypted apps like Telegram, and sharing more sensitive information over calls call or meet in person, according to depositors.
“We first divided it into a provincial group, then a city group below the province group, and then built a subgroup under the city group,” said Sarah Wang, a 39-year-old Hangzhou resident. said, who lost access to about 640,000 yuan of deposits at time. “The people in my group are all nearby, four to five people.”
Months of simmering unrest, which saw at least two initial protests at the offices of banking regulators quickly dispersed by police, reached a climax on May 10. 7.
A crowd of about 1,000 people, many waving Chinese flags, gathered outside a Zhengzhou central bank branch for several hours before the protest was violently broken up by security personnel in viral scenes. Online.
The next day, China’s banking regulator announced that the provinces of Henan and Anhui would begin repaying many customers on behalf of rural banks, and most depositors have since. has been refunded. On the same day, police said they had arrested suspects linked to a criminal gang that controls several banks that gave fake loans to illegally transfer money.
“In the case of depositors, they’ve raised massive amounts of money, which is amazing to see,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto who studies China. level of surveillance on WeChat and other apps”.
Their ability to coordinate shows that regardless of censorship surveillance and other preemptive measures, when enough citizens are disgruntled – especially if they are economic in nature – they will express their anger. themselves through collective action.”
WeChat developer Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.
RED CODE, RED CODE
China’s state-run media outlet, the Global Times in mid-August, quoted a CBIRC official as saying that the banking scandal involved about 30 billion yuan ($4.2 billion) and 600,000 depositors. money. Reuters could not independently verify the figures.
The first signs of trouble appeared on April 18, when four rural banks in Henan and one in Anhui informed depositors, including Yao, that online banking services Online and mobile have been suspended due to system maintenance.
Such activities usually take place at night and last only a few hours. So after a few days, many depositors went online to share their concerns and started forming chat groups.
Yao said he called his bank several times but the callers told him they didn’t know when the problem would be resolved.
On April 24, he drove to Zhengzhou to join dozens of others in seeking answers from the CBIRC’s Henan regional branch (China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission), he added. There he was told by officials that the police had opened an investigation into their complaints and that they should wait.
By early May, Yao still hadn’t heard anything.
Depositors interviewed by Reuters said they began congregating in large chat groups and live-streaming on WeChat and other social media apps, where they agreed to hold demonstrations aimed at causing social unrest. pressure on the authorities to rescue their savings.
There are dozens of such groups, each with hundreds of people, while live streams can run into the thousands, depositors said.
Even so, the police always seem to be one step ahead of them.
On May 12, at CBIRC’s main office in Beijing, Yao said a few dozen depositors had gathered to ask for answers, but security officers had already been assembled. Yao said police took him to a nearby station and only released him after he signed a pledge not to cause more trouble.
On May 23, security officers in Zhengzhou rounded up hundreds of marching depositors for several kilometers and dispersed them before they reached their destination, the Henan government headquarters, six depositors said. .
“Every time we come to protest, there is a large number of security and police waiting. WeChat is completely visible to the authorities,” Yao said.
The next planned protests in Zhengzhou provide further evidence of official foreknowledge.
On June 11, the day before the scheduled protests, authorities began changing the health codes of hundreds of people on their mobile COVID-19 tracking apps to red. depositors said, making it difficult for them to travel or enter buildings under China’s strictures. pandemic policy.
Dozens of depositors have posted screenshots, testimonies and videos online regarding what happened. These were shared millions of times, sparking widespread anger, even from some state media, before the content was censored.
On June 23, anti-corruption authorities announced they had punished five officials in Zhengzhou for deliberately turning the health codes of 1,317 citizens into red.
WHO WAS AGAINST?
By this point, according to many depositors, it is clear that the authorities know their every move by monitoring their large WeChat groups.
Many have decided to adjust their tactics ahead of the next planned protest – the harsh July 10 protest in Zhengzhou – including by breaking up into smaller online groups and using virtual private network, or VPN, to breach China’s “Great Firewall”.
Fiona Xu, a resident of Jiangsu province, who has lost access to about 8 million yuan in deposits, said many depositors feel they have no choice but to “cross the line”.
“Our WeChat group is very easy to be tracked by the police. When we make an appointment in the group, the police will block us first,” she added.
The groups were initially still open, but mainly used for members to share news and support each other, with no sensitive information being discussed, according to depositors.
“Generally they are groups that need to stay warm,” Wang said, adding that members still had to do “homework” such as continuing to call banks, police and regulators, as well as post. on social networks.
The date of the new protest in Zhengzhou has been largely kept secret, more than a dozen depositors told Reuters. Until the last minute, many people only knew that they had to wake up at 4 a.m. in Zhengzhou on July 10 for further instructions.
About 1,000 people gathered at dawn outside the local central bank branch. A long banner in English read: “Fight the corruption and violence of the Henan government.” Protesters chanted: “Henan banks, give us back our deposits.”
The crowd was eventually surrounded and outnumbered by police and unidentified men mostly dressed in white shirts. At around 11 a.m., security officers charged and pulled depositors onto a nearby bus, according to depositors and online footage of the clash, shared millions of times before Videos and related hashtags are moderated.
Wang said she broke her jaw when a plainclothes security man hit her with his elbow.
The next day, CBIRC announced that Henan and Anhui would start repaying loans on behalf of rural banks, starting with customers with deposits of up to 50,000 yuan. Thereafter, the regulator regularly raised the threshold until August 30, when the amount due for repayment reached 500,000 yuan – the state-guaranteed limit on deposits.
However, Yao, like hundreds of others with large deposits, has yet to be refunded. He wants to keep fighting but says he doesn’t know what else he can do.
Feeling disillusioned, he now wants to leave the Communist Party.
“I don’t know who to rebel against. Who am I being persecuted by? No specific person.”
Zhiwu Chen, a finance professor at the University of Hong Kong, said both state governments seeking social stability and consumer activists seeking redress had achieved one measure of success.
“Both sides have probably drawn the conclusion that they have won this battle,” he said, adding that he expected more financial scandals and social discontent to materialize in the coming years. when the Chinese economy slows down.
“This game will continue.”
(1 dollar = 7.1266 yuan)