For Chinese, Peasant Revolt Is Rare Victory
Farmers Beat Back Police In Battle Over Pollution

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.

It was not for lack of trying. Huaxi officials, including Party Secretary Wang Wei, visited other factories in the region and warned in a confidential report that pollution was a danger to residents and agriculture. A copy of the report was leaked and posted for all to see. Partly as a result, villagers wrote an open letter to the Dongyang municipal government demanding the industrial park be closed.

"The Dongyang government turned a deaf ear to it all," said one of those involved.

Frustrated, the villagers tried higher up the hierarchy. They sent a delegation to Zhejiang provincial headquarters in Hangzhou and to the national capital, Beijing, where they left petitions with the premier's office and the State Environmental Protection Administration. No one stopped to listen, they said.

Their patience exhausted, a group of farmers broke into the park in October 2001, shattering windows and vandalizing machinery at the pesticide factory. Wang and 11 others were subsequently arrested. Ten of the 12 were sentenced to jail terms for disturbing the public order. At the trial, according to one of those sentenced, the judge said he did not want to hear about Huaxi's problems with pollution.

A Strategy to Resist

The villagers resisted for the next four years, but made little progress. Finally, they built their first two protest tents at the industrial park's entrance on March 23, using red, white and blue nylon tarps stretched over bamboo frames. Some villagers said they acted because the Dongyang mayor, Chen Fengwei, had refused to receive them during a town hall open house March 15. Others said the decision was made because residents heard another polluting factory was about to move into the industrial park.

Whatever the trigger, after four years of getting brushed aside, the villagers of Huaxi vowed they were not going to take it anymore. No one would be allowed to come and go from the industrial park.

The Huaxi Elderly Association, which admits farmers 60 and older on payment of a 55-cent annual membership fee, volunteered to staff the tents. The elderly farmers, along with younger men leading the fight, figured police would be reluctant to wrestle with old men and women.

They were wrong. The Dongyang City government dispatched 100 policemen and civilian officials five days after the tents went up, villagers said. The police arrived at lunchtime, when many of the elderly protesters were gone, dragged away remaining protesters and torched the tents, the villagers recalled.

But several thousand angry villagers swiftly surrounded the police contingent, refusing to allow some of the officers to get back into their cars. Ultimately, the policemen were allowed to leave unhurt, a participant said, but several of their vehicles were not released until that evening.

The tone had been set for the confrontation to come.

By the next day, farmers from several of Huaxi's rough-hewn villages showed up to build even more tents. Nineteen were erected within hours, several villagers recalled. About 200 people, most of them elderly, began living in them full time, defying police warnings.

During the first week of April, villagers recalled, the protesting old farmers received a day-long visit from Chen, the Dongyang mayor; Tang Yong, the Dongyang Communist Party secretary; and a high-ranking Zhejiang provincial official. The officials cajoled the protesters in a friendly tone, witnesses said, urging them to leave and promising that polluting factories would be closed.

At the same time, the witnesses added, the officials warned that the protest constituted an illegal disturbance of the public order. Moreover, an activist reported, eight villagers were detained after the officials left, accused of setting off firecrackers to announce that the high-ranking officials had arrived.

The warning system was in place.

Farmer's Wrath

When the firecrackers went off April 10, Xu said, about 50 policewomen and riot police burst into the tent she shared with 20 other elderly villagers. The policewomen were shouting orders, Xu recalled, but the elderly protesters could not understand. The shouts were in Mandarin, China's official language, and the retired farmers and their wives spoke only a local dialect.

"Then they tried to pull us out," Xu recalled, sitting in the courtyard of her rickety wooden farmhouse while a middle-aged relative interpreted her recollections into Mandarin. "Those who refused to go were beaten," she added, showing bruises on her left thigh.

As the policewomen and riot police, armed with helmets and plastic shields, dragged the protesters outside, other officers set about destroying the tents with shears and machetes, witnesses said. The flimsy constructions swiftly collapsed into piles of tarp and bamboo.

Xu said she was taken to the local clinic to have her leg examined. But some of the women who had been pulled from the tents sat down in the concrete roadway and refused to leave, blocking police who were trying to remove the debris in a truck, witnesses said.

Most of the protesters who had flooded the area, meanwhile, were being kept behind crime-scene tape, said a pair of farmers who joined the crowd as the women staged their sit-in around 5:30 a.m. But the sight of the elderly protesters being whacked by police trying to clear the road produced a wave of anger among the excited peasants, they said, and many started hurling stones across the tape.

Another protester said the crowd exploded in anger when one of the factory managers, identified as Wang Yuejin, tried to persuade police to take it easy on the elderly women and got hit with a truncheon for his trouble. At about the same time, he said, a villager in the crowd, Wang Hongfa, was struck by a stone launched by the besieged policemen, opening a gash above his left eye. In addition, rumors -- later proved untrue -- began to circulate that two elderly women had died from injuries inflicted by riot police.

"After that, people got really mad," the protester recalled.

'Other Face' of Police

As farmers' stones rained down and the crowd pressed closer at about 6:30 a.m., the police lines collapsed and panicked officers ran for their staging ground at a schoolyard 150 yards from the tents. Some of them were beaten on the way but many made it into the walled compound and locked the doors.

Two of the farmers, with the calloused hands and dirt-lined fingernails of those who till the earth, later recalled what happened next during a long conversation in an isolated farmhouse surrounded by peach trees. It took several hundred villagers to push down the eight-foot-high stone wall surrounding the courtyard, they said, but it collapsed within a few minutes once they all put their shoulders to the task.

As farmers rushed through the 20-foot-wide breach, they found many of the policewomen had taken refuge in buses surrounded by male riot police with shields and batons. But the surging crowd of howling farmers frightened the men away, the pair said, and the buses swiftly emptied as well.

Some policemen shed their uniforms and ran away in their underwear, protesters recalled. Others fled into the classrooms, they said, kicking in locked doors to find shelter. "We saw the other face of the police," said one of the two farmers. "At first, the ordinary people had been afraid. But by then, it was the police who were afraid."

While some of the enraged farmers pursued police officers into the school building, beating those they could and driving the rest away, others set on the buses with stones, bricks and tools. First the buses were trashed, then the sedans.

"It took us less than two hours to destroy all the vehicles," one of the farmers said. "The policemen inside the school didn't dare come out. When they tried to get out, some of them were spotted and the villagers beat them up."

Chen Qixian, spokesman of the Dongyang City government, said 30 local officials and policemen were injured during the clash. But the Phoenix Weekly, a magazine owned by a Hong Kong company, quoted Dongyang hospital officials as saying 140 people were treated for injuries, most of them policemen and officials. Chen said only three villagers were slightly injured. But Huaxi residents said a 55-year-old woman was severely beaten in the head as she was dragged from a tent and remained hospitalized after several operations. Xu, the elderly hut dweller whose thigh was bruised, said policemen wielding truncheons had given a number of elderly protesters the same treatment.

Officials Put on Notice

As villagers celebrated in the courtyard, local schoolteachers entered the building and escorted the remaining police officers away. By the middle of the afternoon, as triumphant villagers posed for photographers holding up pieces of destroyed vehicles, the last of the policemen had made their way out of town.

"We were happy from the bottom of our hearts," one of the farmers said, his conical straw hat resting at his feet.

Later that night, villagers said, some migrant workers sneaked into the courtyard and started scavenging for parts among the destroyed vehicles. Outraged, villagers immediately called police. Officers refused to respond.

Within days, the tents were rebuilt yet again. Twenty-six of them blocked the industrial park for another month, forcing the factories to remain closed. The Huaxi Elderly Association sent its gray-haired protesters back to live in the tents and the firecrackers once again were readied to sound the alarm.

When two trucks tried to sneak around the tents and get into the industrial park with factory supplies on May 12, villagers said, the fireworks immediately crackled and about 10,000 villagers hurried to the scene. With police help, the villagers said, the farmers forced the trucks to back away. Police officers warned the drivers that if they tried again, they would be accused of disturbing the public order, witnesses recounted.

Eager to avoid trouble, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of town posted a large sign saying, "Trucks carrying factory supplies forbidden."

Six of the 13 factories were ordered to move out of Huaxi for good, and Dongyang authorities organized "working groups" of local and outside officials to visit peasant homes and urge that the protest be ended on that basis, according to Chen, the city government spokesman.

To some extent, the diplomacy paid off. With the accord of villagers, local officials took down the tents on May 20. Local police and officials -- Dongyang authorities were asked to stay away -- escorted the elderly protesters home and prevented them from returning. But activists said they put the town council and other officials on notice that if the factories start operations again, the tents will go back up.

No arrests have been made yet, Chen said. But police -- plainclothes as well as uniformed -- have established a heavy presence in Huaxi and local residents have been enlisted in the hunt for those responsible for the peasant rebellion on April 10. The Dongyang administration has made it clear that somebody has to pay.

A "system of punishment and prevention" has been put into place to create a "harmonious society" in Huaxi, a Dongyang city hall statement said. "Our next step is to investigate some party members who were believed to be leaders of the riot," it added.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company