Members of a “criminal gang” accused of taking control of local banks have been arrested in central China after rare protests over alleged financial corruption sparked violent clashes between customers and authorities.

China’s rural banking sector has been hit hard by Beijing’s efforts to rein in a property bubble and spiralling debt, in a financial crackdown that has had ripple effects across the world’s second largest economy.

The slowdown forced four banks in Henan province to freeze all cash withdrawals since mid-April, leaving thousands of small savers without funds and sparking sporadic demonstrations.

In one of the largest such rallies yet, hundreds gathered on Sunday outside a branch of the People’s Bank of China in Henan’s capital Zhengzhou demanding their money, according to multiple witnesses who declined to be named.

Protesters held banners accusing local officials and police of corruption, calling on the central government to “give severe punishment” to those responsible, video footage verified by AFP showed.

Footage of Sunday’s rally showed protesters throwing objects, while one participant told AFP that demonstrators were hit and injured by unidentified men.

Another video verified by AFP showed a man with a swollen eye saying he had been beaten by “gangsters” and dragged onto a bus by police.

Some demonstrators accused officials of colluding with local banks to suppress rallies, and provincial authorities were suspected last month of abusing the country’s mandatory COVID-19 health code to effectively bar protesters from public spaces.

The pass has become a ubiquitous part of life in China under Beijing’s strict COVID-zero strategy, and is required to access the vast majority of buildings, shopping centres, public places and also certain public transport.