These are heady days for China’s state-controlled banks. Last month, the Agricultural Bank of China made its stock market debut, bringing in $22 billion for the largest public offering ever. A sister government-run bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, now has the highest stock market value of any bank in the world.
But the windfalls have created an unusual problem for China: white-collar unrest. A few days after the Agricultural Bank went public, dozens of former bank employees stealthily gathered outside the headquarters of the country’s central bank. There, after distributing small Chinese flags, they quickly pulled on red and blue T-shirts that read, “Protect the Rights of Downsized Bank Workers.” By the time they had unfurled their protest banners, the game was over.
Within minutes, a flock of police officers had swept everyone into five waiting public buses. By 8 a.m., when the People’s Bank of China opened its doors for business, the only sign of the rally was a strand of police tape.
During the past two years, these unlikely agitators — conservatively attired but fiercely determined — have staged similar public protests in Beijing and provincial cities. They have stormed branch offices to mount sit-ins. A few of the more foolhardy have met at Tiananmen Square to distribute fliers before plainclothes police officers snatched them away.
Strategizing via online message boards and text messages, they speak in code and frequently change cellphone numbers. Their acts of defiance are never mentioned in state-run news media.
According to one organizer, a scrappy former bank teller named Wu Lijuan, there are at least 70,000 people seeking to regain their old jobs or receive monetary compensation, a sizable wedge of the 400,000 who were laid off during a decade-long purge.
Like many other state-owned companies, the banks slashed payrolls and restructured to raise profitability and make themselves more attractive to outside investors.
“They tossed us out like garbage,” Ms. Wu, 44, said before a recent protest, scanning fellow restaurant patrons for potential eavesdroppers. “All we’re asking for is justice and maybe to serve as a model for others who have been wronged.”
For a government determined to maintain social harmony, the protests and petitioning are vexing. Compared with farmers angry over seized land or retired soldiers seeking fatter pensions, the bank workers — educated, organized and knowledgeable about the Internet — are better equipped to outsmart the public security agents constantly on their trail.
“What the government fears most are people capable of organizing, and the bank workers have discovered their power,” said Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “The sad thing is that they’re not going to succeed because the more organized you are, the more harsh the government’s reaction.”
Protest organizers are often thrown in “black jails” — extrajudicial holding pens — where they are sometimes beaten before local police officers arrive to take them back home. The recalcitrant and unrepentant sometimes end up in labor camps, where they can spend up to three years without being prosecuted for a crime.
The years of fruitless protest and economic hardship have taken a toll. According to an informal tally by protest leaders, dozens of former bank staff members — most of them unsuccessful at finding new jobs — have committed suicide.
“To be middle-aged and live off your elderly parents is humiliating, and it can become unbearable,” said Huang Gaoying, 49, a teller who was dismissed from the Industrial and Commercial Bank known as I.C.B.C., in 2002.
Even if their numbers are smaller, the former bank employees are not unlike the millions of factory workers shed during the effort to restructure inefficient state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s. In the years that followed, they, too, clamored for redress but were eventually silenced.
In 2000, the Supreme People’s Court put an end to any hope that the legal system might adjudicate such disputes, saying that plaintiffs from state companies had no standing in Chinese courts.
Like the laid-off factory workers, the former bank employees have no independent trade union or association to take up their cause.
Yi Xianrong, a scholar at the Financial Research Center, part of the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the bank workers were unfortunate victims in the necessary revamping of a bloated and inefficient sector.
“In a centrally planned economy, people were put into certain units without regard to need,” he said. “It didn’t matter if you actually worked or not.”
By Western standards, the banks were — and arguably still are — overstaffed, a legacy of their role as the pillars of China’s socialist financial system.
Mr. Yi was not particularly sympathetic to the complaints of the former employees, saying they signed and accepted buyout packages. Many of the workers would disagree, saying they were often forced to accept paltry compensation, sometimes just two or three years before planned retirements.
In interviews with nearly two dozen of the aggrieved, the pattern of dismissals was roughly the same. Workers over 40 were singled out first and there was no room for negotiation. (At I.C.B.C., the standard buyout was about $370 for every year worked.) Those who refused an offer were simply let go without compensation.
Asked to comment on the plight of laid-off workers, the banks — I.C.B.C., the Bank of China, the Agricultural Bank and China Construction Bank — declined.
The story of Ms. Wu, the protest organizer, is typical. Hired just out of high school by an I.C.B.C. branch in central Hubei Province, she said she received numerous “model worker” commendations and had expected lifetime employment.
In 2004, as the bank prepared to issue stock, she was among 160,000 employees laid off. The compensation offered, she said, was unacceptable. “After 20 years at the bank, I thought I deserved more,” she said.
The six-year odyssey — some might say obsession — has included lawsuits, the petitioning of China’s top leaders and the storming of the branch president’s office, which turned into a brawl and led to a brief jail sentence for Ms. Wu.
The banks are so powerful that they can enlist the local police to keep an eye on the most troublesome employees, often following them to Beijing, where their protests and petitioning can prove embarrassing for executives back home.
“The head of my branch said he would never give me my money and spend any amount to fight me to the end,” Ms. Wu said.
After her husband divorced her, Ms. Wu moved to Beijing with her teenage son to be closer to the country’s leaders, who she believes would force the banks to make their former employees whole, if only they knew. She lives in one of the so-called petitioner villages on the outskirts of the capital and survives by collecting recyclables or working as an artists’ model.
In the days after the protest, as the other detainees were released, Ms. Wu remained in custody. Her son, Xiao Yang, 22, said the police searched the family’s home and left with her computer’s hard drive. He said he had the feeling she might not be coming home for a long time.
“She is a very stubborn person,” he said. “I’m definitely worried about her, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Lim Xinhui contributed research.