YANCHENG, China - The rumour spread quickly. A small rural lender in eastern China had turned down a customer's request to withdraw 200,000 yuan (S$41,000).
Bankers and local officials say it never happened, but true or not the rumour was all it took to spark a run on a bank as the story passed quickly from person to person, among depositors, bystanders and even bank employees.
Savers feared the bank in Yancheng, a city in Sheyang county, had run out of money and soon hundreds of customers had rushed to its doors demanding the withdrawal of their money despite assurances from regulators and the central bank that their money was safe.
The panic in a corner of the coastal Jiangsu province north of Shanghai, while isolated, struck a raw nerve and won national airplay, possibly reflecting public anxiety over China's financial system after the country's first domestic bond default this month shattered assumptions the government would always step in to prevent institutions from collapsing.
Rumours also find especially fertile ground here after the failure last January of some less-regulated rural credit co-operatives.
Jin Wenjun saw the drama unfold.
He started to notice more people than usual arriving at the Jiangsu Sheyang Rural Commercial Bank next door to his liquor store on Monday afternoon. By evening there were hundreds spilling out into the courtyard in front of the bank in this rural town near a high-tech park surrounded by rice and rape plant fields.
Bank officials tried to assure the depositors that there was enough money to go around, but the crowd kept growing.
In response, local officials and bank managers kept branches open 24 hours a day and trucked in cash by armoured vehicle to satisfy hundreds of customers, some of whom brought large baskets to carry their cash out of the bank.
Jin found himself at the bank branch just after midnight to withdraw 95,000 yuan for his friend from a village 20 kms (12 miles) away. "He was uncomfortable. It was late and he couldn't wait, so he left me his ID card to withdraw his cash," Jin said.
By Tuesday, the crisis of confidence had engulfed another bank, the nearby Rural Commercial Bank of Huanghai. "One person passed on the news to 10 people, 10 people passed it to 100, and that turned into something pretty terrifying," said Miao Dongmei, a customer of the Sheyang bank who owns an infant supply store across the street from the first branch to be hit by the run.
Claiming to be a Yancheng resident, one user of Sina Weibo's Twitter-like service repeated the story on Monday about the failed 200,000 yuan withdrawal, adding that "rumours are the bank is going bankrupt." When later contacted by Reuters online, he said he had heard the rumour from his mother when she came back from town.
Huanghai and Jiangsu Sheyang banks declined to comment.
China's banks are tightly controlled by the state and bank bankruptcies are virtually unheard of, so the crisis has baffled many outsiders.