Did China Deploy Tanks Against Protesters? What We Do Know, What We Don't

Viral videos of tank processions on Chinese streets have caused a global stir this week, with claims across social media alleging that China's military was drafted in to protect its banks following a major financial scandal.

Posts on Twitter, which have received hundreds of thousands of engagements, allege the vehicles were deployed to prevent a run on the banks, after millions of dollars worth of deposits were frozen from account holders earlier this year.

Since April 2022, hundreds of residents in the central Henan province have been unable to access their money, with authorities only recently consenting to limited withdrawals, leading to protests.

Tanks China
Videos shared widely on social media of tanks moving through what was thought to be streets in China, were claimed to be protecting the country's banks from citizens trying to withdraw money frozen from them. Here, from 2009, Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks rumble pass Tiananmen Square in Beijing during a rehearsal for the National Day parade. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Articles were also published sharing the same claim that spread on social media, some likening it to Tiananmen Square.

However, even as media outlets began to pay attention to the story, some questioned the accuracy and credibility of the original video and tweets, calling them misinformation.

What We Do Know

On July 18, 2022, videos began circulating online of tanks moving through streets thought to be in China.

One Telegram post from July 18 found by Newsweek included two videos of the tanks with the caption (translated via Google Translate): "This is where?"

The videos were posted widely elsewhere on Twitter and YouTube over the next few days, but without speculation that they were linked to ongoing protests elsewhere in the country.

Chinese-born human rights activist Jennifer Zeng also shared the video, saying it was taken on the streets of Rizhao City in the Shandong province.

Zeng, among others who shared the film, did not say that it was linked to the banking protests (although the tone of her tweet implies some element of surprise about the heavy military presence).

Nonetheless, on July 19, posts on Twitter began to spread alleging the tanks had been deployed to protect its banks.

The video and claims were quickly shared; cryptocurrency enthusiasts jumped on the bandwagon, using the clips to advocate for the use of digital currencies.

Similar posts claimed the tanks had been sent to Henan province, not Rizhao City.

While videos originating from China are often difficult to verify and authenticate, in this case it appears to be stripped of its original context. For one, it appears to have been recorded Rizhao City in Shandong province, not Henan.

One big clue is in the background of the film: A large building with distinctive columns along its fascia, lit by yellow lighting.

This appears to be the Ji Hotel, located along the city's seafront; photos of the building at night can be found via hotel booking sites. Similar photos were shared on Twitter debunking the claim that the tanks were in Henan.

Also known as the Rizhao Lighthouse Seaside Scenic Area Hotel, the establishment was contacted by the Associated Press, who were told by a staff member at the reception desk that "the tanks did drive past on July 17, as part of a military exercise that happens every year." She also reportedly said it was not linked to any bank protests.

Storyful, a news and social media intelligence company, corroborated Rizhao as the actual source location of the footage to Newsweek after investigating.

Rizhao itself has not been at the center of the banking protests either; the city is more than 500km from Henan, where demonstrations have been widely reported. The general public featured in the video certainly do not appear to be energized for a protest—most passers-by are glancing idly at the military vehicles.

We also know that over the past month, military exercises have been announced in locations close to Rizhao, according to statements published by the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration (MSA). Some social media users speculated they are linked to the annual August Holiday, PLA (Army) Day.

Co-ordinates shared by the MSA pinpoint locations in the Yellow Sea, which Rizhao sits along. This suggests that the tanks may have been a part of these exercises (although this hasn't been confirmed).

Although not directly related, tensions have been high between China and the U.S. recently, after an American warship sailed through the Taiwan strait, among a series of voyages about once a month. According to Reuters, the voyages have been viewed as support for Taiwan.

Interestingly, there was some speculation on social media that the tanks in Rizhao were connected to preparations for an invasion of Taiwan. Much like the claims about the banking protests, however, there appears to be no immediate evidence to support this rumor.

With this put together, we can say with some certainty that the footage purporting to show tanks being used to protect banks on the streets of Chinese is at best mislabeled, and likely deliberately misleading.

Unsurprisingly, communities promoting cryptocurrency as well as traditional financial hedging instruments (namely silver and gold) were among the first to spread the footage, often accompanying it with fearmongering commentary about the supposedly imminent financial collapse.

What We Don't Know

With little information beyond the coordinates shared by the MSA and the accounts of others on Twitter, we cannot say with absolute certainty why there were tanks in Rizhao.

One of the challenges brought about by China's careful safeguarding of its social and mainstream media space is that it creates a void for misinformation.

Without forthcoming comment from the country's representatives, either on social media or elsewhere, rumors can spread quickly and without repercussion, as this case demonstrates.

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese embassy in the U.S. for comment.

Update 7/22/22, 6:30 a.m. ET. This article was updated with comment from the hotel reception desk assistant cited in an Associated Press article.