SHIJIAHE, China -- Hundreds of police stormed this village in central China before dawn last Saturday and fired rubber bullets into large crowds of unarmed farmers who had threatened a protest in the provincial capital, injuring dozens in one of the most violent clashes known to have taken place in the Chinese countryside in recent years.
No villagers were killed, but residents said about 10 were hospitalized with serious injuries, including a woman who was shot nine times in the back and another who was shot five times. As many as 50 other villagers suffered moderate injuries, residents said, and a local doctor said dozens of police officers were hurt.
Residents of Shijiahe are treated at a clinic after clashes with police sparked by the confiscation of local farmland.
(Photos Provided A Resident Of Shijiahe)
At least 100 government officials moved into a school in this village outside Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, to calm tensions in the aftermath of the July 31 incident and to hush it up. But witnesses described what happened in surreptitious interviews in villagers' homes Thursday, and others provided details by telephone or in Zhengzhou. One resident provided digital photos of his bloodied neighbors and of ammunition collected on the street the next morning.
The confrontation is a reminder of the stark challenge that rural unrest poses for the Communist Party, which took power in China 55 years ago in a peasant revolution but is now struggling to contain rising anger in the countryside over high taxes, official corruption and farm incomes that are stagnating even as the national economy booms.
Here in Shijiahe, a relatively prosperous hamlet of corn fields and vegetable farms about 400 miles southwest of Beijing, villagers are protesting another problem that has emerged as an explosive issue in rural China: the seizure of farmland by local officials to build roads, dams, factories or real estate projects, often for personal profit.
In part because the state still owns all land in China and has granted peasants only long-term leases to their plots, local officials managed to take control illegally of at least 300,000 acres from 1.5 million farmers between 1999 and 2002, according to conservative estimates by the Land and Natural Resources Ministry. And official police statistics show a rising wave of protests over such land transfers.
Residents said hundreds of villagers staged two protests in Zhengzhou, a few miles away, in recent weeks against plans by the village's party chief to expropriate 80 acres of land, which would reduce each family's plot by about a third. The party chief had seized nearly 250 acres from the village's 6,000 residents since 1996, they said, selling some of it for a huge profit.
City authorities sent a team to investigate in mid-July after the second protest, when 400 villagers disrupted traffic in downtown Zhengzhou. But the investigators seemed uninterested in the protesters' grievances, and the villagers threatened on July 30 to protest again the next day.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on July 31, 500 to 1,000 police officers wearing anti-riot gear and riding in a convoy of more than 50 armored vehicles entered the village to search for protest leaders. One of the men detained, a 46-year-old village doctor who like other residents asked not to be named for fear of arrest, said officers kicked down almost every door in his home and smashed all his windows before forcing him and his son into one of their vehicles.
Neighbors said the noise woke them, and when they stepped out to investigate, police beat them with truncheons and shouted at them to get back inside. But villagers realized police were trying to take away their representatives and poured into the streets.
"They tried to push us back, but more and more villagers fought their way out," said one 32-year-old farmer, who described seeing police strike down two women who attempted to block an armored vehicle by standing in its path. "Villagers were yelling at the police, telling them to arrest the real criminals, not the good people."
At one intersection, a crowd of more than 200 villagers managed to surround and stop three armored vehicles and a group of about 100 police officers, witnesses said. The police fired shots into the air, and when the crowd did not disperse, the officers used tear gas. The stunned villagers began backing off, but as they were retreating, the police began shooting into the crowd, witnesses said.
"Everyone tried to run," recalled a 58-year-old woman, holding a blouse stained with blood. "The police just wanted to get out. They left all these villagers behind bleeding and didn't do anything to help them."
Witnesses said similar clashes occurred at several other locations in the village. Some residents attempted to block police peacefully, but others threw stones at them.