January 19, 2006 – Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
PANLONG, China, Jan. 17 – By day this small village in the midst of China’s industrial heartland seems to be a picture of normalcy: children play in their yards, workers in uniform sweep the tidy streets and a red flag flutters proudly above an elementary school with a facade bearing a poster of the hero of Chinese economic reform, Deng Xiaoping.
But as evening approaches the streets fall eerily quiet, and if you look carefully at the cars that drive by every few minutes you see that they are filled with police officers, both uniformed and, unmistakably, plainclothes. Track down a resident, if you can find one, and that impression is confirmed.
“You’d better be gone before dark,” one man told a stranger. “Pretty soon the police will be everywhere, and no one will dare go outside.”
In an immediate sense this community, not long ago pure farmland and now the paved-over scene of runaway industrial sprawl, has experienced an extraordinary trauma in the last week. Villagers say two residents were killed, including a 13year-old girl, amid the muscular suppression of a local demonstration by policemen using electrified truncheons that resemble cattle prods.
Seen in another light, though, one that must be deeply worrying for the country’s authorities, Panlong is anytown China, merely the latest example of protests and riots spreading through the countryside against injustices inflicted on those left behind by China’s economic takeoff.
Just as the protests are becoming more and more common, so is the use of overwhelming force to put them down. A major threshold was crossed early last month in the village of Dongzhou, about two hours from here by car, where residents estimate that as many as 30 people were killed by paramilitary security forces that fired on demonstrators.
Beijing has said little about the events in Dongzhou, allowing the unconvincing bare-bones account of provincial authorities to stand, along with their verdict that any violence was the fault of the peasants. The fervent hope in Beijing must be that villagers around the country do not come together on common issues.
In a series of interviews on Tuesday, people here made it clear that there was a broad awareness of the events in Dongzhou and of the discontent simmering in much of rural China. But they are fatalistic about their power to win redress for their grievances against the government.
“We live in this society and we just have to accept this reality,” said a villager named Shen, who like several others who agreed to speak, gave only his family name, for fear of retribution from the authorities. “We have no land left. Our land has already been taken away with a compensation of only 700 yuan per person every year.” That amount is the equivalent of about $90.
The strands that come together in Panlong are so typical of rural protests as to be very nearly generic.
There are small people dispossessed of their land to make way for industries or development projects.
There are fruitless efforts to seek help, from city hall to the provincial administration and all the way to the capital. There is environmental destruction on a huge scale and the loss of long-held livelihoods.
When a spark ignites the people’s discontent, there are police state tactics to suppress the protests and enforce a silence over the details. Ultimately there are brass knuckles, jail and, lately, death for those who refuse to take the hint and desist.
“People here have tried everything you can think of to get the problem solved before this happened,” said a resident who gave his name as Chen. “They talked to the village committee, the township and municipal governments. One of them even went to Beijing. But nothing is done – the village officials just simply ignore them.”
Mr. Chen described the peak of the protests, on Saturday night, when the deaths occurred. “It was like a war, so real and so brutal,” he said. “I did not see who started it, but I saw policemen were beating the villagers and the villagers were fighting back with stones and firecrackers.”
Since then, villagers said, many residents are being forced to report each morning to the police, who detain them until late in the evening, when they are allowed to return home until the next morning.
As with so many recent rural protests, Panlong’s problems began with land. Many villagers told stories of having been deceived by corrupt local officials who they said had enriched themselves by selling off rights to the villagers’ farmland.
“Two years back, one day some villagers were asked to attend a routine meeting,” said a 42-year-old farmer who gave his name as Fang. “They went and they paid 10 yuan for participation fees, and they signed in as usual. Later, when we discovered our land was being sold, we asked the village committee to explain what’s going on, and they answered that we had signed the contract. Suddenly we remembered that meeting, and everyone understood that we had already been cheated.”
Although there have been small protests over land issues going back to the early 1990’s, villagers said trouble broke out in earnest early last week after a speech by the Communist Party secretary for Guangdong Province, Zhang Dejiang. Mr. Zhang said land issues must be resolved equitably in the province.
Brandishing his words, villagers began a sit-in and later obstructed traffic, demanding that the matter of compensation for their land be reopened. A particular focal point for the protests was the Minsen garment factory, the land for which villagers said had been acquired through corrupt deals with local political figures in Sanjiao, the town that encompasses the village of Panlong.
“The Sanjiao town area is the darkest place I had ever been to, although it is one of the richest places in the country,” said one man, who spoke bitterly about the construction of palatial homes by officials connected to land deals.
“I’m a son of the senior government official,” the man added. “I’m actually risking too much to meet you. I could just shut up and have a happy life, but we’ve got to do something so the next generations have a better and cleaner place to live.”
January 19, 2006 – Copyright The New York Times