China's Rising Tide of Protest Sweeping Up Party Officials

A villager in Xiachaoshui, who identified himself only by his surname, Yao, explains the assault on hillside mining sites.
A villager in Xiachaoshui, who identified himself only by his surname, Yao, explains the assault on hillside mining sites. (Edward Cody - Twp)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 12, 2005

XIACHAOSHUI, China -- The first thing villagers noticed was the mud. Silt gradually thickened the waters of the Chaoshui River, they recalled, and before long fouled the rice paddies that provide them a meager but dependable living here in the rugged hills of central China.

By the beginning of this year, the fish had disappeared and the once-pristine water turned black. Women could no longer do the family laundry along the banks. Then, as the weather warmed this spring, the villagers said, children started coming down with skin rashes after taking a dip.

The reason their river was going bad, the villagers were told, was that scores of mines containing an industrial metal known as molybdenum had started operating in the hills upstream, sending waste down the river. Repeatedly, the villagers complained to county authorities, demanding that the mines be shut down or brought under control. But with mineral prices shooting up, the lure of profits was too much to resist. Thousands of small-scale miners -- some with permits, others sneaking in to work at night -- kept raking the mountainsides for ore and flushing what they did not need into the Chaoshui.

In May, the enraged villagers gave up on the government and decided to organize a raid on the mines. Over several frenzied hours, the wiry villagers used farm tools and their bare hands to destroy more than 200 mining sites, defying a local policeman who tried to rein in their fury.

What was remarkable about the raid was that the village Communist Party secretary and elected village chief declined to intervene, revealing a crack in the iron discipline traditionally enforced by government security organs and the party apparatus.

In the nearby village of Guideng, just three weeks earlier, another mob tore down mining facilities, in this case a pollution-spewing refinery for another metal, vanadium. They also reported passive complicity on the part of the Communist Party secretary and elected leader. And now a group of irate village leaders in this remote region have gone a step further, moving from passive complicity to active support of the peasant cause.

In a rare act of open defiance, the village leaders have joined forces against the central government in an unauthorized organization. They have threatened to resign en masse if authorities fail to take swift action. Unless something is done soon, the leaders said in a protest letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, more peasant violence will follow.

"If the central government cannot solve the problem, we will wait for a little while, and if they still have not solved the problem, we will destroy more of the factories," declared Hua Ruiqi, 55, elected leader of Aimen village.

The two eruptions of peasant violence in the hills near here offer a glimpse of a much larger wave of popular unrest. Thousands of protests break out every year in China's cities and villages, even though such demonstrations are prohibited. The protests have become a major concern for President Hu Jintao's government, which is anxious to prevent them from spreading and undermining stability and, ultimately, the Communist Party's hold on power.

The village party chiefs and elected leaders here have not played their assigned role of enforcing government authority because of a shared outrage that the county and provincial officials charged with protecting the environment have not protected the rivers, peasants said. After one trashing spree, officials from a nearby town even bought lunch for the hungry peasants.

The party chiefs "don't dare" oppose the peasants, said Su Changshen, a 60-year-old farmer who helped tear down a vanadium refining operation that spewed poisonous dust over his village. "This is a farmer's rebellion."

The Price of Growth

These dramatic hills, gashed by deep gorges through which rivers rush down toward the mighty Yangtze, seem like an unlikely site for conflict. About 750 miles southwest of Shanghai, the jagged slopes here have long attracted Chinese rafters and other tourists drawn by natural beauty.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company