For Chinese, Peasant Revolt Is Rare Victory

Angry residents overturned several police cars April 10 during a peasant revolt in which police officers carrying out a raid were beaten and driven away by 20,000 residents protesting an industrial park that was eventually shut down.
Angry residents overturned several police cars April 10 during a peasant revolt in which police officers carrying out a raid were beaten and driven away by 20,000 residents protesting an industrial park that was eventually shut down. (Photos For The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 13, 2005

HUAXI, China -- A hard rain had fallen most of the night. Xu Juxian, a wiry farmer's wife with straggly black hair, said the downpour leaked copiously into the ragged tents where elderly protesters had been camping for more than two weeks. As a result, recalled Xu, they were all damp, uncomfortable and wide awake in the still hour just before dawn.

So Xu, 79, and the others immediately heard the commotion when dozens of government cars and buses wound into Huaxi beginning at 4:30 a.m. on April 10, carrying an estimated 3,000 policemen and civilians assigned to destroy the tents. To alert people in this gritty farm town that police were pouring in, watchful residents set off fireworks by the hundreds.

By the time dawn broke, up to 20,000 peasants from the half-dozen villages that make up Huaxi township had responded to the alarm, participants recounted, and they were in no mood to bow to authority. For four years, they had been complaining that industrial pollution was poisoning the land, stunting the crops and fouling the water in their fertile valley surrounded by forested hills 120 miles south of Hangzhou. And now their protest -- blocking the entrance to an industrial park -- was being put down by force.

A pitched battle erupted that soggy morning between enraged farmers and badly outnumbered police. By the end of the day, high-ranking officials had fled in their black sedans and hundreds of policemen had scattered in panic while farmers destroyed their vehicles. It was a rare triumph for the peasants, rising up against the all-powerful Communist Party government.

The confrontation was also a glimpse of a gathering force that could help shape the future of China: the power of spontaneous mass protest. Peasants and workers left behind by China's economic boom increasingly have resorted to the kind of unrest that ignited in Huaxi. Their explosions of anger have become a potential source of instability and a threat to the party's monopoly on power that has leaders in Beijing worried. By some accounts, there have been thousands of such protests a year, often met with force.

The workers and peasants appear to have nowhere else to turn but the street. Their representatives in parliament do what the government says; independent organizations are banned in China's communist system; and party officials, focused on economic growth, have become partners of eager entrepreneurs rather than defenders of those abandoned by the boom. Most of the violent grass-roots eruptions have been put down, hard and fast. This report examines the origin and unfolding of one revolt that went the other way. "We won a big victory," declared a farmer who described the protest on condition that his name be withheld, lest police arrest him as a ringleader. "We protected our land. And anyway, the government should not have sent so many people to suppress us."

A Deaf Ear

From the beginning, the villagers said, they had opposed Zhuxi Industrial Park, which spreads over 82.3 acres at the edge of town. Some feared pollution. Others thought giving up even a little farmland betrayed their long agricultural heritage.

The villagers described the origins of their protests in a series of recent interviews. They expressed anxiety that undercover police were now seeking ringleaders of the protest, filtering through Huaxi's walled barnyards and brick homes. They said arrests were likely to come soon. But they portrayed the protest as a victory over officialdom that was long overdue. Most of the villagers spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of arrest and imprisonment.

When the industrial park was begun, the municipal government of nearby Dongyang City, which has authority over Huaxi, already owned 49.4 acres of the needed land. Villagers whose fields overlapped into the site had to slice off swaths for the other 32.9. In return, villagers said, each affected family got $14.60 a year for four years, an amount that villagers consider woefully inadequate.

Despite the opposition, Zhuxi Industrial Park opened in 2001. Elected village councils in Huaxi and the Huaxi Communist Party secretary were powerless to stop a decision imposed by municipal authorities, residents said. The Dongyang City government and the Communist Party committee, which also administered the park, leased sites to 13 private and joint state-private factories. Eight of them produced chemical products, villagers said, and others worked with plastic.

Gas emissions soon seethed through the village, residents said, irritating eyes and forcing families to close their windows to sleep. Factory effluents seeped into the stream that farmers depended on for irrigation, they complained, causing crops and trees to wither. A particular offender, they added, was a pesticide factory that had moved in after being forced out of Dongyang City because of foul odors.

But no one, the villagers lamented, would listen to their pleas to have the factories closed.

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