Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French The New York Times
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2005
SHENZHEN, China Five days after a fatal assault by security forces put down a demonstration in a village near Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities began Sunday to consolidate an official version of the events, blaming villagers for the violence, but also punishing at least one local commander.
The delayed response by the government appeared, at least in part, to be part of a carefully measured public relations effort intended to defuse public outrage over the deaths of 20 or more residents of the hamlet, according to villagers’ accounts, as well as upholding Beijing’s own vision of public order and the “rule of law.”
In the first widely circulated account of the incident, which occurred in the village of Dongzhou, in southern Guangdong Province, the Xinhua press agency Web site cited the information office of the nearby city of Shanwei, saying that a “chaotic mob” had begun throwing explosives at the police Tuesday night, forcing the police to “open fire in alarm.” The report said that three villagers were killed and eight were wounded.
The Chinese news reports said that 170 villagers, led by a few instigators, had attacked a local wind power plant as part of their protest against another planned development there, a coal-fired power plant, using knives, blasting caps and gasoline bombs.
On Sunday, as detailed accounts of the incident given by villagers were being reported in the foreign news media and commented upon on Chinese-language Web sites, the authorities announced the arrest of a local commander who was in charge during the incident.
Without naming him, they said he had mishandled the situation under “extremely urgent circumstances.”
The Xinhua report did not make it clear whether there had been one or more arrests of officers in charge. Villagers interviewed Sunday said they had been told of two arrests.
The official account of the incident, as well as the death toll being reported in the mainland Chinese media, remain at odds with largely concordant accounts of the villagers, dozens of whom have been interviewed since Friday.
According to these accounts, three bodies were taken to a local clinic after the showdown between the protesters and security forces, and another to a hospital in Shanwei, a city about 25 kilometers, or 15 miles, to the north of Dongzhou, which has jurisdiction over the village.
But in telephone interviews with villagers on Saturday and Sunday, witnesses spoke repeatedly of an additional seven or eight bodies seen by a roadside near the scene of the violence. Other accounts, given by numerous villagers, spoke of 13 or so bodies floating in the sea after the security forces used automatic weapons on the protesters.
The villagers said they had set off fireworks and exploded blasting caps from a distance of more than 90 paces from the massed police and paramilitary forces. Villagers also repeatedly spoke of wounded people being approached by security forces and fatally shot at close range.
“There were seven or eight bodies, killed by the spray of gunfire, that fell into a ditch,” said one villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The next day, going up along the ditch deep into the grass bushes, villagers found up to 10 bodies. Those inside the ditch were taken away and cremated immediately. I saw it while hiding in the grass bush on the mountain. Immediately I felt like crying, it was such a cruel scene.”
The villager’s account dovetails with that of several other villagers who spoke of bodies by the roadside near a village crossroads. Others spoke of the effort by soldiers to dispose of corpses, keeping villagers at a distance while they burned some of them, and loading others into a minibus, which some villagers said, then took the bodies to a local crematorium for disposal.
Dongzhou residents also said that at least 40 villagers were still unaccounted for, and it was not known whether the missing were killed, arrested or remain in hiding.
If accurate, these accounts suggest a frenzied effort by the authorities to maintain an official death toll of about three people, thereby minimizing the importance of the event, which constitutes the greatest known use of force by the Chinese security forces against ordinary citizens since the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing, in 1989.
Villagers said that with security agents still circulating in large numbers, and going from door to door to interrogate residents, some families that had recovered the corpses of their relatives had buried them hastily, and in secret, to avoid their confiscation.
Others said that the police had offered money to those who would surrender their corpses, as well as money for casing from ammunition recovered from the scene. Villagers said that some people had sold their casings, while others had kept them as evidence of the use of force.
The effort to manage public information about the incident was also apparent on Saturday in Shanwei, where villagers said some of the wounded and dead were taken by the police.
At one hospital, visited by a foreign journalist after 11 p.m., people said wounded residents from Dongzhou were being cared for in isolation on a third-floor ward. On the third floor, a wing of the hospital was fenced off and guarded by the police.
On Saturday night, roads out of Shanwei for a distance of more than 160 kilometers had police checkpoints that taxi drivers said had been created to search for “fugitives” from Dongzhou.
On Sunday, villagers contacted by telephone asserted that people who visited their hospitalized relatives in Shanwei had been detained.
The deadly confrontation Tuesday was the culmination of months of tension over the construction of a coal-fired power plant at Dongzhou. Villagers said they had not been adequately compensated for the use of their land – less than $3 a family, according to one account – and feared that pollution from the plant would destroy their livelihood as fishermen.
The construction plans called for a bay beside the village to be reclaimed with landfill.
“Shanwei’s deputy party secretary said that he wanted to trample Dongzhou into a flat land,” said a village resident who gave her name as Jiang.
On Saturday, even as they continued their search of the village and questioning of residents, the authorities said they had no choice but to open fire.
“I’m a good friend of Dongzhou people,” one party official said by megaphone as he toured the village. “Nobody wants to see anything like what happened here on the night of Dec. 6, but the people of this village are too barbaric. We were forced to open fire.”
From the start, villagers have disputed accounts that said they had attacked the authorities first with explosives.
“We didn’t use explosives, because we were too far away,” said one villager, a 16-year-old boy who was in the midst of the crowd when the violence erupted.
“Someone may have tried, but there’s no way we could have reached them. These were homemade weapons, and when they started shooting we didn’t have a chance.”
Copyright The International Herald Tribune