In online chat groups, thousands of small investors who had put their savings into dubious digital products plotted a big protest in Beijing this week.
Under pressure from local officials, one woman’s family begged her not to go. After a visit from the local police, a man’s boss threatened to break his contract if he participated. At airports, bus and train stations across China, scores of people making their way to Beijing were confronted by police officers who urged them — sometimes with force — to turn around.
Those who did make it to the headquarters of the Chinese banking regulator in Beijing on Monday faced hundreds of police officers sent to quash it. Some were dragged off, while others were shoved into buses leaving the city.
For Chinese officials, the financial is quickly becoming political.
In recent years, millions of ordinary investors across China have plowed their savings into online financial products that promised big profits with little risk. But the sudden collapse of hundreds of these peer-to-peer lenders in recent months has prompted a panic, leaving many investors with little information and little way to get their money back.
Frustrated investors are appealing to local and national authorities. As many see it, the government encouraged the growth of these online lenders, which were intended to connect mom-and-pop investors with borrowers. The state, these investors say, should make them whole.
While the Communist Party always tries to tamp down protests to maintain social stability, the current discontent among investors belies a bigger problem for the Chinese authorities. A vast, unruly shadow banking system, where some companies have lured people with get-rich-quick schemes, has created hidden debt bombs that could leave the economy vulnerable. And it comes at a tricky time for the leadership, as China deals with signs of slowing growth, a wavering stock market and an escalating trade war with the United States.
“I don’t believe in the government,” said Liu Yu, a 35-year-old shopkeeper who traveled 13 hours to Beijing on Monday to protest. He said he lost $ 9,000 on a lending platform called Catch the Money Cat, which notified investors on July 20 that it was having problems paying back investors and that the police in the city of Hangzhou were investigating. “There is no credibility,” he added.
When these digital products emerged in China a decade ago, they were pitched as an outlet for small-time borrowers, who were mostly ignored by the country’s big state-run banks. For investors ponying up the money to lend, the gains were tantalizing, with some promoting returns as high as 40 or 50 percent.
Lightly regulated, they attracted ordinary people — from students to grandparents — in droves through an advertising blitz on mobile apps, in movie theaters and even in residential elevators. Many products appeared to have the government’s imprimatur, since they used state-owned banks to help facilitate payments and create the appearance of safer investments. Thousands of companies pulled in an estimated $ 194 billion from as many as four million individuals.
Tang Zehui, 42, a factory worker who rode a 30-hour train to Beijing this week from southwestern Sichuan Province, said she had turned to these investments, as many others in China had, because the interest rate on regular savings accounts was too low.
“We don’t have any good ways to manage our finances,” said Ms. Tang, who said she lost about $ 22,000 to Leadercf.com which is based in the southern city of Guangzhou. Ms. Tang said she trusted it because the state’s support seemed to be implicit.
The platforms were supposed to be matchmakers, providing a place for savers to meet borrowers who needed short-term loans. But with little regulation, many of these companies pooled together investors’ money and then tried to find borrowers, creating a potential mismatch when it came time to pay out.
In 2016, they were told to register with local financial regulators and comply with new rules or face being shut down. But the deadline was postponed to an unspecified date.
“Many people see these products as similar to saving,” said Yu Baicheng, director of research at Wangdaizhijia, an independent provider of data on China’s online lending industry. “They are not aware of the potential risks.”
There have been blowups in the past. The founder of a $ 9 billion lending platform called Ezubao was sentenced last year to life in prison for bilking investors. In January, more than $ 5 billion of investor money disappeared from a popular investment portal called Qianbao, which had been praised by the official state news media.
A deeper worry started to set in this summer, after the government warned about the risk of losses.
“High returns mean high risks,” Guo Shuqing, the chairman of China’s Banking Insurance Regulatory Commission, said in June in public remarks at a conference. Any product that offers an 8 percent return, Mr. Guo said, is “very dangerous.” Investors in products with returns of 10 percent or more, he went on, should “be prepared to lose all the principal.”
Almost immediately, the concerns prompted a run on the industry, as investors demanded their money back. A wave of defaults followed, with each collapse setting off the next, like a set of dominoes.
Some executives shut down their businesses and fled with client money, while others suspended operations following a flood of demands from investors for repayment. Many are now under investigation.
In early July, Money Pig, a company based in the southern city of Shenzhen, notified tens of thousands of investors that their accounts had been suspended. Trying to get their money back, investors gathered at a police station there a few weeks later. The group of office workers, students and businessmen wore face masks, sunglasses and white T-shirts that read, “Give me my hard-earned money back!” and “Government, save our investors!”
“I started to panic,” said Chen Shuaipeng, 30, a salesman who flew to Shenzhen for the protest from the eastern city of Tianjin. He said he had $ 93,000 of savings in a Money Pig account before it was frozen.
In Hangzhou, a group of investors who showed up to talk to officials was large enough to fill two sports stadiums, according to state news media reports. Others have gathered to protest in Nanjing and Shanghai, according to news reports and widely circulated videos online.
“The entire industry is facing panic, and the speed of collapse is still accelerating,” said Xue Hongyan, director of Suning Financial Research Institute, which studies the industry.
Officials trying to control the situation are faced with a fast-moving crisis. In July alone, 168 lending platforms halted their operations, according to Wangdaizhijia.
In recent weeks, large numbers of disgruntled investors have started to share their experiences online, updating one another about investigations. Soon, investors were talking about banding together for a big protest in Beijing on Monday.
China’s censors quickly took note, and soon one chat room after another was closed down. Investors switched between different chat apps to avoid censorship, using forums like QQ, WeChat, YeeCall, Qunduoduo and Telegram.
Mr. Gao, who asked not to use his full name for fear that he might lose his job at a machine manufacturing company, first learned online about plans for the protest in Beijing. He had lost nearly $ 126,000 when the lending portal Tangxiaoseng collapsed.
After Mr. Gao discussed his trip to Beijing in several WeChat groups, the local police went to his home. “I said one word in our chat group, and they came to my door, asking me not to go petitioning.”
But Mr. Gao said he felt emboldened to let the government know what had happened to him. Quoting China’s premier, Li Keqiang, Mr. Gao said, “if you can’t see sunshine where you are, please come to Beijing.”
He went to Beijing a few days before the planned protests only to discover that a dozen government officials had visited his company and urged his boss to ask him to return. When he got home on Monday, his company asked him to sign a letter promising not to engage in protests; otherwise he would be fired.
“I think I won’t be able to keep my job,” he said.