Victims of what could be one of China’s largest financial scandals were surrounded by local police and beaten by unidentified men during a protest in Henan province on Sunday. An estimated 1,000 depositors gathered in front of the Zhengzhou sub-branch of the People’s Bank of China on Sunday morning, in a latest attempt to recover millions of yuan frozen in rural banks. One depositor, surnamed Guo, said people had come from all over China to protest, arriving at the scene as early as 4am. Videos sent to the South China Morning Post show the protesters lined up in rows in front of the bank, holding banners that read “No deposits, no human rights”, “We are against Henan government’s corruption and violence”, chanting, “Henan banks, give me my money back” and “[Premier] Li Keqiang, investigate Henan”. One depositor brought portraits of Mao Zedong and pasted them on pillars in front of the bank, Guo said. Portraits of the late Communist leader are sometimes used in protests against corruption and corporate power in China. Other photos and videos that were shared on social media platform Weibo have been censored, along with hashtags recording the protest. Hundreds of thousands of people across China who had deposited their money in four rural banks based in Henan have been trying to get their money bank since April. Their accounts were frozen that month when an investigation began into claims the Henan Xincaifu Group Investment Holding, a private investment firm with stakes in all four lenders, had colluded with bank employees to illicitly attract public funds via online finance platforms. Regulators have not confirmed the amount of money that has been frozen, but depositors who have formed groups on social media platforms to air their grievances claim the figure is tens of billions of yuan. Henan police have detained a number of suspects related to the scandal, while the provincial Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said on Sunday night it had been checking on the banks’ finances and would release a compensation plan soon. “We wanted to solve the issue that we have not been able to withdraw deposits from the rural banks for more than 80 days,” Guo said. “The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission and People’s Bank of China are all relevant departments [that have regulatory authority].” Minutes after the protest began, hundreds of men dressed mostly in white shirts and black trousers surrounded the scene, pictures sent to the Post show. Local police in uniforms stood further away. A few hours later, an official spoke to the crowd, asking them to remain patient and go back to their cities, Guo said. Soon afterwards, the people in white started physically dragging people away and beating up the protesters, he said. Guo, a 40-year-old small business owner from Beijing, had invested more than one million yuan (US$149,360) in the New Oriental Country Bank of Kaifeng, which had taken him 10 years to save up. Chinese watchdog investigates after bank protesters tagged as health risk Guo said investors have yet to receive any promises about whether or when their money will be returned. Meanwhile, the victims have been holding frequent protests in Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission did not answer phone calls seeking comment. Guo said he had left the protest when things started getting chaotic and boarded a train back to Beijing. But other protesters were less lucky. Feng Tianyu, a woman from the northeastern city of Harbin who is nine weeks pregnant, said about five people in white shirts had surrounded her, pressing her head down and trying to drag her away. When her father shouted at the group that she was pregnant and told them to leave her alone, he was also assaulted. “In the end, we were dragged onto a bus, and I developed leg cramps and stomach pain,” she said, providing pictures of scratches on her father’s arms and legs. The protesters were taken to various locations in the city to be held before being sent home, she said. She had experienced something similar in May when police in Zhengzhou held her in a hotel for hours before being released. “I have more than one million yuan in the banks. If they don’t give me the money back, I won’t be able to raise my baby,” she said. In June, when victims tried to stage a protest, many found the health codes on their phones needed to use public transport or enter buildings had turned red – flagging them as a Covid risk . China’s small-bank shareholders continue to abuse positions, despite crackdown The news heightened fears that the extensive data collected by the Chinese government to fight Covid-19 could be used for other purposes and let to disciplinary action being taken against officials responsible for big data and Covid prevention. However, some depositors said last week that they had found their codes had turned red again without warning.