Chinese police beat and detained a number of protesters after more than 1,000 people took to the streets of the central province of Henan over the loss of their money after an agency promising overseas work contracts went bankrupt, protesters said on Thursday.
The clashes came after police were drafted in to disperse protests in the provincial capital Zhengzhou, sparked by the collapse of the Aohua Immigration and Exit Co., leaving thousands of people with lost deposits, protesters said.
"We took to the streets in protest because we had no other option," a protester surnamed Luo told RFA.
"But they sent in the police to crack down on us, 100 or 200 of them, and they beat up anyone who didn't leave," he said, adding that an estimated 10 protesters were injured in the clashes.
Luo said Aohua had operated as a middle-man introducing workers in China to overseas work contracts, but anyone who applied was asked to pay a fee of 30,000-50,000 yuan (U.S.$4,800-8,000) in two installments up front.
He said the company claimed to have sent workers into the transportation, packaging, driving, warehouse operations, and similar industries in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Greece in its first year of operation.
A second protester who declined to be named said all of those who had lost money were hoping for a chance to earn good pay overseas, and accused the company of taking fees from workers who had no chance of getting visas.
"They exaggerated, telling us that they could get us visas as skilled immigrants, or that they could find us sponsors overseas," the protester said.
"I handed over a total of 45,000 yuan (U.S.$7,200) in introduction fees since last year," he said. "But I haven't heard a thing back from them."
He said Aohua had collected introduction fees mostly from rural laborers, and accused the company of taking money from people too unskilled to qualify for work-related visa schemes.
A third former Aohua customer from the eastern province of Shandong said he had paid his fee a year ago.
"It's been a year now, and I still haven't left the country," the man said. "They promised me at the time that they would refund the fee if I didn't manage to go overseas, but they never did this."
"They made it sound so good at the time, but now the office is empty and the boss has run away."
The Chinese online news site Sina reported that the head of the company was "incommunicado," without reporting a name.
The clashes came after a large group of protesters gathered outside the complaints department of the provincial government, in a bid to get local officials to intervene.
"They were all put under house arrest, the second protester said. "They still haven't been released."
"The police also beat people up and snatched some of our cell phones away," he said.
"We went to the provincial government to try to get an explanation, but they shut us outside and sent a lot of police to stop us getting inside."
"The government officials didn't come out, but instead sent in the riot police to beat and threaten people and disperse them, trying to suppress it all," he added.
An official who answered the phone at the Henan provincial government offices on Thursday declined to comment, saying they had received no information on the incident.
Refusal to investigate
According to Luo, Aohua stopped operating at the beginning of this week.
"On April 20, there were still some people in their offices, but they had all disappeared by that afternoon," Luo said. "We reported it to the police, but they ... refused to open an investigation."
He added: "I couldn't save up that introduction fee in five years of working."
A fourth protester surnamed Zhang said the company had defrauded its victims of more than 100 million yuan (U.S.$16 million) in total.
"This company was so dodgy; it managed to get away with cheating people out of 100 million yuan," Zhang said.
"We took it to the government but they are just kicking us around like a football," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Zhengzhou municipal government offices on Thursday also declined to comment.
"I don't know about this," the official said. "You should call the propaganda department."
But repeated calls to the number provided went unconnected, while calls to the Aohua company offices rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.