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Police Open Fire on Rioting Farmers, Fishermen in China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 8, 2005 10:33 AM

DONGZHOU, China, Dec. 8 -- Paramilitary police and anti-riot units here have opened fire with pistols and automatic rifles for the past two nights on rioting farmers and fishermen who have attacked them with gasoline bombs and explosive charges, according to residents of this small coastal village.

The sustained volleys of gunfire, unprecedented in a wave of peasant uprisings over the past two years in China, have killed between 10 and 20 villagers and injured more, residents said. The count was uncertain, they said, because a number of villagers have disappeared and it is not known for sure whether they were killed, wounded or driven into hiding.

The tough response by black-clad riot troops and People's Armed Police in camouflage fatigues deviated sharply from previous government tactics against the spreading unrest in Chinese villages and industrial suburbs. As far as is known, previous riots have all been put down with heavy use of truncheons and teargas, but without firearms.

This time, according to a villager who heard and saw what happened, police responded to the launching of explosives by firing repeatedly "very rapid bursts of gunfire" over a period of several hours Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Some villagers reported seeing the People's Armed Police carrying AK-47 assault rifles, one of the Chinese military's standard-issue weapons. There were no reports of violence Thursday night.

The villagers who rose up against land confiscations in Dongzhou, a community of 10,000 residents 14 miles southeast of Shanwei city, in Guangdong province near Hong Kong, also opened a new chapter -- the use of the homemade bottle bombs and explosive charges that local fishermen normally use to stun fish in the adjacent South China Sea. In previous riots, attacks against police were limited to pelting them with stones and bricks or setting fire to official vehicles.

The Communist Party and city administration of Shanwei, which has jurisdiction over Dongzhou, held all-day meetings Thursday on the violence, officials said. The city spokesman, however, refused to discuss what happened in the village and also declined to give his name. He said only that local authorities were taking the crisis seriously.

There likewise was no public response from the Guangdong provincial Communist Party and government, which have been hit by several long-running and violent confrontations over land confiscations during the past year. As was the case in most previous unrest, the government-censored press and television has not reported on the violence in Dongzhou.

Police set up a roadblock at the edge of the village, blocking most vehicles from entering or leaving, and white Public Security vehicles patrolled the main road linking Dongzhou with Shanwei. Pedestrians and motorcycles were allowed to pass in and out of the village, however, and buses waited for passengers just outside the checkpoint.

About 700 yards down the main street, about 100 villagers glared Thursday afternoon at a force of approximately 300 riot police, wearing helmets and carrying shields and batons, while an officer using an electric loudspeaker urged residents repeatedly to stay in their homes.

"This has nothing to do with you," he blared. "Return to your houses."

The long-simmering conflict in Dongzhou arose over disputed confiscations and what farmers here said were inadequate compensation payments. Authorities exercising the equivalent of eminent domain seized farmers' fields to build a wind-driven electric generating plant on a hillside overlooking the village. The plant would be part of a $700 million electricity development project to supply the growing power needs of Shanwei and surrounding towns and villages.

Villagers, contacted by telephone, complained that the compensation was inadequate. Moreover, they charged, the power plant would spoil fishing in Baisha Lake, a tidal inlet just below the hill on which villagers rely for seafood.

The confrontation was typical of the tension across China between economic development, which runs about 9 percent a year, and farmers' desire to retain the land that they regard as security for their families. The tension is particularly acute here in Guangdong province and the Pearl River Delta, where during the past two decades of economic liberalization, factories and dormitories have steadily eaten away at the rice paddies, corn fields and fruit orchards that used to flourish in the warm, wet climate.

For most of this year, Dongzhou villagers have been protesting on and off against the power plant project, originally scheduled to be finished in 2007 but now delayed. One protest leader, surnamed Huang, was arrested in July.

"It is illegal to impede the progress of a key infrastructure project," a Shanwei spokesman, Li Min, told Radio Free Asia then. "As for whether the compensation is reasonable, it was in line with the usual standards."

The villagers, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said the current round of violence was set off when authorities arrested three village leaders who had gone to the hillside plant site Tuesday afternoon to lodge a complaint. Before long, they said, several thousand villagers gathered on the hilltop to demand their release.

Those villagers were dispersed by volleys of teargas fired by police, residents said. But shortly afterward, authorities dispatched between 400 and 500 more riot police into the village as reinforcements, the residents said. That contingent was met by several thousand angry villagers, they added, and police again resorted to teargas about dusk. This time, however, some villagers reacted by pelting police with the explosives, according to witnesses, and the police responded with sustained pistol and automatic weapons fire over the following three hours.

A similar confrontation occurred Wednesday evening on the main village road, leading to more attacks with gasoline bombs and several more hours of shooting, the villagers said. "The police kept on shooting until they drove away all the villagers," said a witness.

In the absence of official information from the government or Dongzhou hospital, reports flew from family to family of villagers killed, bodies burned and relatives unable to retrieve their slain loved ones left lying in the street. Some said 20 villagers were killed each night; others said the total was 14.

"I saw the bodies lying there," said one witness to Tuesday night's violence. "The family members were afraid to go and get them."

One villager, Liu Yujing, 31, said his younger brother, Liu Yudui, 26, was hit by two rounds, one in the heart and one in the bladder, immediately after he stepped outside the family home to see what was going on in the street Tuesday evening. "He died before we could get him to the hospital," Liu said.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

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