Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: December 10, 2005
SHANGHAI, Dec. 9 – Residents of a fishing village near Hong Kong said Friday that as many as 20 people were killed by the paramilitary police this week, in an unusually violent clash that marked an escalation in the widespread social protests roiling the Chinese countryside. Villagers said as many as 50 other residents remained unaccounted for since the shootings on Tuesday.
It was the largest known use of force by security personnel against citizens since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989. That death toll is still unknown, but is estimated to have been in the hundreds.
The violence near Hong Kong began after dark on Tuesday evening in the town of Dongzhou, when the police opened fire on crowds to put down a demonstration over plans for a power plant. Terrified residents said their hamlet has been occupied since then by thousands of security officers, who have blocked off all access roads and were arresting residents who have tried to leave the area in the wake of the heavily armed assault.
“From about 7 p.m. the police started firing tear gas into the crowd, but this failed to scare people,” said a resident who gave his name only as Li and claimed to have been at the scene, where, he said, a relative had been killed.
“Later, we heard more than 10 explosions, and thought they were just detonators, so nobody was scared,” Li said. “At about 8 p.m. they started using guns, shooting bullets into the ground, but not really targeting anybody. Finally, at about 10 p.m. they started killing people.”
The use of live ammunition to put down a protest is almost unheard of in China, where the authorities have come to rely on the rapid deployment of huge security forces, tear gas, water cannons and other nonlethal measures. But the Chinese authorities have become increasingly nervous in recent months over the proliferation of demonstrations across the countryside, particularly in heavily industrialized eastern provinces like Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong, where Dongzhou is situated.
By the government’s own tally, there were 74,000 riots or other significant public disturbances in 2004 alone, a big jump from previous years.
The Chinese government has not issued a statement about the events in Dongzhou, nor has it been reported in the state news media. Reached by telephone, an official in the city of Shanwei, which has jurisdiction over the village, said, “Yes, there was an incident, but we don’t know the details.” The official, who declined to give his name, said a government announcement would be made Saturday.
In telephone interviews with more than a dozen villagers in Dongzhou, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, a detailed account of the conflict emerged. Residents said their dispute with the authorities had begun with a power company’s plans to build a coal-fired generator nearby, which they feared would cause heavy pollution. Farmers said they had not been compensated for the use of their land for the plant.
Others said plans to fill in a local bay as part of the power plant project were unacceptable because people have made their livelihoods there as fishermen for generations. Already, villagers complained, work crews have been blasting a nearby mountainside for rubble to use in the landfill.
A small group of villagers was chosen to complain to the authorities about the plant in August, but the members were arrested, infuriating residents and leading others to join the protests. The police made more arrests on Tuesday while villagers were staging a sit-in. In response, many people came out into the streets, where they obstructed several officers.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers were rushed in. “Everybody, young and old, went out to watch,” said one man who said his cousin had been fatally shot in the forehead by the police during the protest. “We didn’t expect they were so evil. The farmers had no means to resist them.”
The earliest accounts coming from the village said the police had opened fire only after villagers began throwing homemade bombs and other missiles. But villagers reached by telephone on Friday denied those accounts, saying that a few farmers had launched ordinary fireworks at the police as part of their protest.
“Those were not bombs, they were fireworks, the kind that fly up into the sky,” one witness said. “The organizers didn’t have any money, so someone bought fireworks and placed them there. At the moment the trouble started, many of the demonstrators were holding them, and of those who held fireworks, almost everyone was killed.”
Other witnesses estimated that 10 people were killed in the first volley of automatic gunfire. “I live not far from the scene, and I was running as fast as I could,” a witness said. “I dragged one of the people they killed, a man in his 30’s who was shot in his chest. Initially I thought he might survive, because he was still breathing, but he was panting heavily, and as soon as I pulled him aside, he died.”
That witness said that he, too, had come under fire when police officers saw him going to the aid of the dying man. Villagers said that in addition to the regular security forces, the authorities had enlisted thugs from local organized crime groups to help put down the demonstration. “They had knives and sticks in their hands, and they were two or three layers thick, lining the road,” one man said. “They stood in front of the armed police, and when the tear gas was launched, the thugs were all ducking.”
Like the Dongzhou episode itself, most of the thousands of riots and public disturbances recorded in China this year have involved environmental, property rights and land-use issues. Among other problems the Chinese government has in trying to come to grips with the growing rural unrest, it is wrestling with a yawning gap in incomes between farmers and urban dwellers, as well as rampant corruption in local government, where officials make deals with developers involving communal property rights, often for their own profit.
Finally, cellphones have made it easier for people in rural China to organize, communicating news to one another by text messages, and increasingly allowing them to stay in touch with members of nongovernmental organizations in big cities who have been eager to advise them or to provide legal help.
Over the last three days, residents of the village said, few people dared to go outside, other than to look for missing relatives. The police and other security forces, meanwhile, combed the village house by house, residents said, looking for leaders of the demonstration and making arrests.
Residents said that after the demonstration was suppressed, a senior Communist Party official went to the hamlet from nearby Shanwei and addressed residents with a megaphone. “Shanwei and Dongzhou are still good friends,” a villager recalled that the party official said. “We’re not here against you. We are here to make the construction of the Red Sea Bay better.” Later, the official told visitors, “all of the families who have people who died must send a representative to the police for a solution.”
On Friday, about 100 bereaved villagers gathered at a bridge leading into the town, briefly blocking access to security forces. The villagers hoisted a white banner whose black-ink characters read: “The dead suffered a wrong. Uphold justice.”
Copyright The New York Times