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.”