Chinese Police Bring Villagers To Heel After Latest Uprising

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

SHANWEI, China -- Two weeks after a protest that culminated in gunfire and bloodshed, the rebellious farmers and fishermen of Dongzhou have been reduced to submission. Authorities have sealed off the seaside village and flooded its streets and lanes with police patrols, residents said, and an unknown number of men have been summoned by a knock on the door and hauled away for interrogation.

As a result, the spirit of defiance that pushed several thousand villagers to clash with riot troops and People's Armed Police on Dec. 6 has been replaced by fear, foreboding and resentment, according to conversations with a number of residents. Normal life has been suspended inside the community, they said, and outsiders who approached Monday were halted by police at a barrier with a sign that read: "Entry Not Allowed."

"We seldom go outside our houses anymore," said one villager contacted by telephone. "We seldom talk to other villagers. People are afraid to, because the police are patrolling all around the village. We are afraid that if we get together, they might arrest us for some reason or another."

Dongzhou, on the southeast edge of Shanwei city about 125 miles northeast of Hong Kong, has come under a wave of repression. Shanwei officials, in their announcements, have focused attention on three men they qualified as "instigators" who they said used "threats and superstition" to rouse their neighbors to rebellion. All three have been in custody since Dec. 9.

The crackdown by officials in Dongzhou was similar to the response by authorities to riots that have erupted with increasingly frequency across China over the past two years, according to accounts by witnesses and participants.

After setting up an investigation, police typically pay rewards to those willing to denounce their neighbors. Protesters have described being taken into custody and suffering excruciating pain at the hands of interrogators who try to force them to admit criminal actions during the rioting.

The Shanwei government, which administers Dongzhou and surrounding areas, has promised to improve social services for villagers but has not offered any concessions on the dispute that led to the riot: land confiscations to make way for a new power plant. Instead, villagers said local officials repeatedly have broadcast messages over street-corner loudspeakers urging residents to rally to the police, trust the government and stop being led astray by protest leaders.

Police in white vehicles have set up checkpoints, preventing residents from leaving the town and others from entering. The streets were patrolled by small groups of unarmed policemen. Their mission was evident: a giant red banner strung across a government building just across the road from Dongzhou's main entrance reads: "Severely punish the criminal elements and return to normal social order."

For years, the relentless pursuit of those who challenge the state's authority has impeded the development of anti-government movements. But loyalty toward the state, particularly among peasants, has diminished in recent years, and repressive tactics have become less effective. Still, the government's harsh methods have so far confined the challenge to uncoordinated local outbursts, like those in Dongzhou, led by people who feel they have little to lose

Echoes of Tiananmen

The Public Security Ministry has acknowledged that the number of riots has risen sharply in China, reaching more than 70,000 in 2004 and developing into a major concern for the government. But the violence in Dongzhou stood out because police used their guns. Most of the recent uprisings have been suppressed by riot police armed with tear gas and truncheons. Members of the People's Armed Police, who carry automatic weapons, rarely have been deployed.

Witnesses reached by telephone estimated the number killed was between 10 and 20 in Dongzhou. The city government at first denied that police opened fire on Dec. 6. Then city officials issued a statement on Dec. 10 saying police fired warning shots that, in the chaos, accidentally killed three villagers. That account was repeated and elaborated on in a lengthy statement published Sunday in Guangdong province's main official newspapers.

Chinese dissidents, who preferred to believe the villagers, compared Dongzhou to the June 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, when People's Liberation Army troops killed pro-democracy demonstrators in an act that for many people still marks the Communist Party.

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