Chinese Pressing to Keep Village Silent on Clash

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: December 17, 2005
SHANGHAI, Dec. 16 – Ten days ago, the sleepy fishing village of Dongzhou was the scene of a deadly face-off, with protesters hurling homemade bombs and the police gunning them down in the streets.
In Dongzhou, where some residents say the police killed 20 or more demonstrators during a clash last week over building a power plant, people drove under banners on Wednesday encouraging them to obey the law.
Today, a stilted calm prevails, a cover-up so carefully planned that the small town looks like a relic from the Cultural Revolution, as if the government had decided to re-educate the entire population. Banners hang everywhere, with slogans in big red characters proclaiming things like, “Stability is paramount” and “Don’t trust instigators.”
Many facts remain unclear about the police crackdown on a Dongzhou demonstration on Dec. 6, which residents say ended in the deaths of 20 or more people, but one thing is certain: The government is doing everything possible to prevent witnesses’ accounts of what happened from emerging.
Residents of Dongzhou, a small town now cordoned off by heavy police roadblocks and patrols, said in scores of interviews on the telephone and with visitors that they had endured beatings, bribes and threats at the hands of security forces since their protest against the construction of a power plant was violently put down.
Others said that the corpses of the dead had been withheld, apparently because they were so riddled with bullets that they would contradict the government’s version of events. And residents have been warned that if they must explain the deaths of loved ones – many of whom were shot dead during a tense standoff with the police in which fireworks, blasting caps and crude gasoline bombs were thrown by the villagers – they should simply say their relatives were blown up by their own explosives.
“Local officials are talking to families that had relatives killed in the incident, telling them that if they tell higher officials and outsiders that they died by accident, by explosives, while confronting the police, they must make it sound convincing,” said one resident of the besieged town in an interview. “If the family members speak this way they are being promised 50,000 yuan ($6,193), and if not, they will be beaten and get nothing out of it.”
Another villager, who, like other residents, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear or reprisals, said families of the dead who agreed to invoke accidental explosion as the cause of death had been offered $15,000 each.
“The story is being spread around the village that people were not killed by bullets, but by bombs,” said one man interviewed Friday by telephone. “That’s rubbish. Everybody knows they were killed by gunfire.”
The bomb story was also being spread at a hospital in the nearby city of Shanwei, where villagers injured in the protest are being treated. Plainclothes police surrounded a Chinese man who entered the hospital seeking to see the wounded, denying him access to a tightly guarded ward even when he said his relative was among the injured. Later, hospital staff members told the man that the injured had all been warned to stick to the same story, of being injured by their own explosives.
The attempt to enforce a concocted story may help explain why residents have reported difficulty in recovering the bodies of their loved ones. The official New China News Agency said Saturday that only three people had been killed and eight others injured when security forces shot at protesters, so the existence of more bodies riddled with bullets could destroy the official version of events and provide proof of tremendous force against a lightly armed, if restive, crowd. “The relatives went in tears to the county offices to search for the dead and missing, and they were beaten by electric truncheon, wounded and dispersed,” one resident said.
“They offered 50,000 yuan, and told us we could only get back the body at night and bury it on the mountain immediately, without any mourning ceremony or fireworks, without anyone knowing about this,” a relative of Wei Jin, a man killed during the demonstration, said in an account of an attempted bribe involving his relative’s corpse.
“And if someone from outside asks about the issue, we must say he died by his own bomb. We turned down the offer, and they doubled the money, but we still would not accept it.” The man said his relative had been shot twice, once from afar and again from close range.
Other residents of Dongzhou took the precaution of burying their relatives in secret so that the government would not confiscate the bodies. “We buried the body on the seventh by ourselves, and would not let them know where it is,” said a relative of Lin Yidui, one of the dead. “You should let the dead lie in peace.” The man said the authorities dared not try the bomb story on him, saying, “We have the evidence.” When authorities have come to comfort his family, saying it was an accidental shooting, the man said he replied, “How could my brother be shot in the heart if you were firing a warning?” Interviews with villagers, both in person and by telephone, made clear that security forces had already imposed a high price on others deemed uncooperative. “They arrested one ordinary villager and beat him very brutally,” said one resident in the town. “His hands were twisted this way, and his whole body is full of wounds. They said he assisted one of the three leaders to escape the village, so they tried to force him to tell them their hiding place.”
Another man told of a woman who had been overheard by the police complaining about harsh repression meted out in the village. “She had said something a bit angry and was beaten by the police,” the man said. “She had just scolded them for being so cruel as to shoot villagers, and she was beaten right there, kneeling and crying in front of many people.”
More than half of the scores of people reached by telephone in recent days said they were too frightened to share their experiences by phone, and many of them hung up hastily. “I’m afraid of their threats, of being caught and beaten,” one man said. “It has happened. The police and the army are here, and if our conversation is known to them, I will suffer a lot.” Another resident reported that telephones in the area had been blocked from making calls to Hong Kong, which is less than 125 miles to the south, shares a similar dialect and has news media that can freely report on the incident, unlike the mainland Chinese media, which have been all but silent about it.
The Chinese government has also said little about the violence in Dongzhou. After publishing its report in the official New China New Agency, which saw very limited circulation in the country, the government also announced the arrest of an unnamed commander the following day, saying he had mishandled the incident and caused “mistaken deaths and accidental injuries.”
The government has rejected comparisons with the massacre of hundreds of protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a comparison drawn both by foreign journalists and by a prominent group of dissenting Chinese intellectuals who condemned the killings at Dongzhou in an Internet petition this week.
“Conclusions have been reached on the 1989 incident already,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang. “No conclusion yet has been drawn on this event. How can we know yet if they are the same type of incident?”
So far, however, the official account of last week’s violence widely diverges from the account of almost every villager interviewed. Although the villagers’ own estimates of the number of dead and missing vary, most still speak of 20 or more people dead and large numbers of missing.
Even by the villagers’ death toll in Dongzhou, the Tiananmen Square massacre involved killing on a far greater scale. It also involved national politics, with young demonstrators streaming into the center of Beijing, often from far away, to support calls for democracy. The Dongzhou episode, by comparison, is part of a much more diffuse crisis, though not necessarily a less political one. Chinese villages and townships have been the scene of increasing turmoil in the last year, as rural dwellers have demonstrated against local governments, sometimes rioting, over issues like corruption, land use and rampant industrial pollution.
The Dongzhou episode is something of a watershed because it is the first time that villagers are known to have used explosives, albeit crude and ineffective ones, against security forces. Beijing faces a quandary in that it must rein in abusive local governments without sending the signal that unrest is the best way to obtain concessions. It also fears the emergence of any solidarity movement between peasants and township dwellers, whose protests have so far been largely unconnected.
Just as worrisome for the central government are the alliances being forged between lawyers, social workers and advocates of change in China’s big cities and rural demonstrators. When Dongzhou’s residents were first confronted with the local government’s plans to build a coal-fired power plant in their midst, few villagers imagined they had any legal rights in the matter.
“Villagers had no knowledge of law,” said one woman by telephone. “The government will do whatever its wants. But later some of us who knew something about law learned the power plant wasn’t approved by the central government, and told other villagers.”
Although difficult to confirm, there are indications that the villagers were emboldened to challenge the plant’s construction through contacts with lawyers elsewhere in China.
After numerous discussions, the power company made an offer of less than $25 per family as compensation for land use and pollution caused by the planned coal-fired generator.
By that time, though, the villagers had already been energized, uncovering what they said were misrepresentations by the company about the amount of land it would use, and opposing the plant on other issues as well.
“Villagers didn’t accept the deal anyway,” said the telephone interviewee, describing how the movement gained momentum. “Initially nobody organized. Then little by little they did. The organizers had all served in the army. They had some basic knowledge of the law.”
27 Tried in Attack on Protesters
BEIJING, Dec. 16 (AP) – A former local Communist Party official and 26 others were being tried on charges of organizing a bloody attack on protesting villagers that killed 6 people in June, the government said Friday. The announcement came as the government tried to defuse anger over a separate clash last week in which the police fired on protesters in a village northeast of Hong Kong, killing at least three. Villagers said as many as 20 were killed.
In the June conflict in Hebei Province, near Beijing, up to 300 men with knives and guns attacked villagers protesting the seizure of land for construction of a power plant.
He Feng, a former local Communist Party secretary, was among the 27 who went on trial on Thursday on charges of causing “intentional injuries,” the official New China News Agency said. Rural confrontations are increasing in China as local authorities seize land for construction of factories, power plants and other projects. Farmers often complain they are paid little or nothing and sometimes accuse local officials of stealing compensation money.

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