China Wavers on Police Shooting

Police man a checkpoint outside Dongzhou, where anti-riot police last week fired automatic rifles into crowds of protesters, residents said.
Police man a checkpoint outside Dongzhou, where anti-riot police last week fired automatic rifles into crowds of protesters, residents said. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

HONG KONG, Dec. 13 -- The Chinese government said Tuesday it had reached "no conclusion" on the fatal police shooting last week of rural protesters in southern China, in a remarkable sign of uncertainty within the Communist leadership about how to handle an incident that dissidents are comparing to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The statement, made by a Foreign Ministry spokesman during a regular news conference in Beijing, came as a group of prominent dissidents called on the government in an open letter on the Internet to conduct an independent inquiry into the shooting.

State media have said the incident left three dead and eight wounded, but residents have said the shooting resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 villagers. State media first blamed the Dec. 6 confrontation in the town of Dongzhou entirely on a small number of "instigators," but announced Sunday that a police commander had been detained for mishandling the incident and causing "mistaken deaths and accidental injuries."

The differing accounts, and the inability of the spokesman to address the shootings after a week, suggest that senior Chinese leaders may not be in agreement about whether police acted properly in opening fire on the farmers protesting land seizures in the town, about 125 miles northeast of here in Guangdong province, or about what the government should do in response.

Such public wavering is rare in China's authoritarian system, and especially so in a matter involving the country's influential security forces. Even if police acted without approval from local Communist Party officials, which is unlikely on a matter as sensitive as the use of deadly force against civilians, the government would generally be expected to stand firm and defend them.

Among the dissidents who signed the open letter were several figures associated with the Tiananmen movement, including Ding Zilin, a historian leading a group of mothers whose children were killed in the 1989 military assault on pro-democracy demonstrations in the square. The dissidents described this month's incident as "the first large-scale shooting of ordinary people by the Chinese government since the June 4, 1989, massacre."

In remarks omitted from a transcript posted on an official Web site but recorded by foreign news agencies, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang rejected any comparison between the Dongzhou clash and the Tiananmen crackdown, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed and which the government continues to maintain was justified.

"Conclusions have been reached on the 1989 incident already. No conclusion yet has been drawn on this event," Qin said. "How can we know yet if they are the same type of incident?"

Qin said he had no information about the number of people killed in Dongzhou.

Almost all of China's state-censored newspapers and other news outlets have been silent on the clash, which arose from a long-simmering dispute over the confiscation of farmland to build a wind-powered electricity plant and what villagers described as inadequate compensation for the loss of the land.

Residents have said anti-riot police and members of the People's Armed Police, which is under both military and civilian command, repeatedly fired automatic rifles into crowds of thousands of protesting farmers and fishermen, some of whom had attacked them with explosive charges and homemade gasoline bombs.

The confrontation was the latest in a wave of protests in the Chinese countryside stemming from tensions between local officials seizing land for economic development and farmers determined to retain their plots. But the decision to shoot at the protesters marked a sharp escalation by Chinese police, who usually use tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to suppress demonstrations.

The government has sealed off Dongzhou, setting up roadblocks and expelling several foreign journalists found in the area. But villagers have told reporters by phone that as many as 40 residents are missing and that local officials were trying to cover up the violence by destroying the bodies of the dead. They also said local television had reported the arrest of nine residents involved in the protests.

Meanwhile, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, Ta Kung Pao, identified the commander detained for mishandling the incident as Wu Sheng, a deputy police chief in Shanwei, a city about 14 miles northwest of Dongzhou that has jurisdiction over the town.

Official newspapers in Guangdong had already disclosed the detention, without naming him. The newspapers also said a "small minority of troublemakers" who incited the protesters to violence were most responsible for the casualties.

The report has not been distributed by any of China's national media, in another sign of possible disagreement in the leadership about who should be blamed for the shootings.

In the open letter, dated Saturday, Ding and seven others, including the literary critic Liu Xiaobo and the historian Bao Zunxin, condemned the "use of fully armed police to slaughter defenseless villagers" and demanded that the government let Chinese journalists report on the incident.

They also called on the government to launch democratic reforms, arguing that the party's "crippled" political system had led to growing social unrest and conflicts between officials and the public. By late Tuesday evening, a copy of the letter posted on an overseas Web site had attracted nearly 300 signatures, including those of many prominent writers, lawyers and social activists.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company