Chinese Police Kill Villagers During Two-Day Land Protest

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 9, 2005

DONGZHOU, China, Dec. 8 -- Paramilitary police and anti-riot units opened fire with pistols and automatic rifles Tuesday night and Wednesday night on farmers and fishermen who had 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 last two years in China, killed between 10 and 20 villagers and injured more, according to the residents. The count was uncertain, they said, because a number of villagers could not be located after the confrontations.

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, authorities put down all previous riots using truncheons and tear gas, but without firearms.

This time, according to a witness, police responded to villagers throwing explosives by firing "very rapid bursts of gunfire" over a period of several hours both nights. Some villagers reported seeing 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 were protesting land confiscations in Dongzhou, a community of 10,000 residents 14 miles southeast of Shanwei city, in Guangdong province near Hong Kong. In their confrontation with authorities, they also stepped up their tactics by using homemade bombs and explosive charges that local fishermen normally use to stun fish in the adjacent South China Sea. In previous riot reports, attacks against police were limited to throwing stones and bricks or setting fire to official vehicles.

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

There also was no public response from the Guangdong provincial Communist Party and government, which have faced several long-running and violent confrontations involving land confiscations over the last year. The government-censored press and television have not reported on the violence in Dongzhou.

Police set up a roadblock at the edge of the village, stopping 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 away on the main street, approximately 100 villagers glared Thursday afternoon at a force of about 300 riot police who wore helmets and carried shields and batons. An officer using an electric loudspeaker repeatedly urged residents to leave.

"This has nothing to do with you," he called out. "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 also spoil fishing in Baisha Lake, a tidal inlet just below the hill, on which villagers rely heavily for food.

The confrontation was typical of the tension between the drive for economic development in China -- which has a growth rate of 9 percent a year-- and farmers' desire to retain the land that they regard as security for their families. Land disputes have been a prime reason for popular explosions of violence, which the Public Security Ministry estimates involved 3.76 million people in 74,000 incidents during 2004.

The pressure is particularly acute here in Guangdong province and the Pearl River Delta where, during the last two decades of economic liberalization, factories and dormitories have steadily replaced 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.

The villagers interviewed, 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 people gathered on the hilltop to demand their release.

They were dispersed by volleys of tear gas fired by police, residents said. 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 tear gas at about dusk. This time, however, some villagers responded by pelting police with the explosives, according to witnesses, and the police unloosed sustained pistol and automatic-weapons fire over the subsequent three hours.

A similar confrontation occurred Wednesday evening on the main street in the village, 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 the violence on Tuesday night. "The family members were afraid to go and get them."

One villager said his younger brother, Liu Yudui, 26, was hit by two rounds, one in the heart and one in the abdomen, after he stepped outside to see what was going on. "He died before we could get him to the hospital," the brother said.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company