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Chinese Police Bring Villagers To Heel After Latest Uprising

The differences, however, were large: People's Armed Police, under joint military and civilian command, can be deployed without a momentous national leadership decision such as the one that led soldiers to spill blood in Tiananmen Square. Hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed in 1989. Moreover, the protesters at Dongzhou were not students rallying around a statue of liberty at the center of Chinese political life; they were peasants hurling gasoline bombs at police in a village of no more than 40,000 people.

Nonetheless, there were similarities: The official versions of each incident blamed anti-government troublemakers and averted mention of how party and government leaders made crucial decisions that led to the violence, and the careers of senior Communist Party officials were affected.

A Chinese source with access to information from senior Shanwei officials said the municipal government was in close coordination with provincial leaders from the first moment of the crisis. After the shootings Dec. 6 and a smaller clash the next day, Zhang Dejiang, the Communist Party secretary of prosperous Guangdong province, who also sits on the party's national Politburo, traveled to Shanwei and took charge on Dec. 8, the source said.

Two days later, on Dec. 10, Shanwei authorities published a statement saying a local deputy commander of the Public Security Bureau, identified by Hong Kong newspapers as Wu Sheng, had been detained for questioning in connection with the shootings. There was no mention of higher-ranking officials.

Suspicions of Corruption

Dongzhou's villagers had been complaining for more than a year about confiscation of their lands. Shanwei officials sold off village rice paddies for a large-scale electricity-generating project, they said, and then offered what they considered to be inadequate compensation for the land.

The peasants also suspected corrupt Shanwei officials were pocketing some of the compensation funds. The widespread conviction that local officials are corrupt has become a leading cause of rural unrest across China.

But Dongzhou's unhappy peasants and fishermen had still another reason for their anger. The village accountant, Huang Jinhe, was found dead in September. Without proof, many Dongzhou residents said they considered his death a murder because he was backing demands that the village accounts be opened for an explanation of how the compensation money was spent.

In addition, the electricity-generating project brought construction crews who filled in most of Baisha Lake, a small South China Sea inlet on the Zhelang Peninsula. The lake has been largely covered over for a thermal plant rising on Dongzhou's shore and, on the other shore, for the construction of a broad avenue leading to a wind-driven power plant installed at nearby Shigongliao village. During a visit Monday, a few fishermen were seen standing in brackish water pulling in empty nets, 10 feet from the raised avenue and under the shadow of a red-and-white smokestack.

For the villagers of Dongzhou, the inlet was not only a source of fish. It was a source of good fortune. They said legendary creatures rose from its waters in ancient times. In more recent times, villagers said -- famine during the Japanese occupation in World War II and the chaos during the Cultural Revolution -- algae at the bottom saved the village from starvation. Filling it in, they complained, ruined Dongzhou's feng shui , the harmony of its environment.

Shanwei officials, in their statement published Sunday, said such superstitions were promoted among Dongzhou residents, in particular by Huang Xijun, one of the three men accused as instigators of the uprising. They said that his influence spread through an illegal broadcast station he set up to incite protest and that he was also director general of the Dongzhou Buddha Council, which the statement described as "a superstitious organization in charge of divine activities in Dongzhou."

Breaking Point

From the beginning of the year, villagers said they lodged complaints with authorities in Shanwei and Guangzhou, the provincial capital. In response, city and provincial task forces dispatched officials to visit Dongzhou households one by one, to explain the benefits of the power plant.

The city proposed several formulas for compensation, all of which were rejected by villagers. To force the city's hand, villagers set up a roadblock at the entrance to the power plant construction site, bringing a delay of nearly three months and losses estimated by city officials at millions of dollars.

By July, the standoff hardened. Three village leaders -- Huang and two others, Lin Hanru and Huang Xianyu -- were taken into custody. Outraged villagers swiftly blocked the main road outside their community, an artery that leads to a popular beach resort farther down the peninsula. Their tactic appeared to work; the men were released without being formally arrested.

The death of the village accountant in September spurred the protest movement on, villagers said, and increased their resolve not to give in. They sought advice from leaders of Shigongliao, who also had fought to win more compensation for land taken to build the nearby wind farm.

In addition, villagers said they humiliated several city officials by kidnapping them as they swam at a nearby beach and held them for hours in the trunks of their cars.

The tactics drew the police, who came to Dongzhou on Dec. 5 and arrested Li Zelong, another protest leader. Although police said Li was apprehended for drug trafficking, villagers said they assumed he was detained over his role in the protests, and they expected Huang and others to be arrested soon.

With that in mind, they joined forces with a number of Shigongliao residents and moved the next day to take control of the wind-driven power plant on the lake's eastern shore. When they heard that a large number of policemen were moving on Dongzhou late that afternoon, villagers said they rushed to confront them, armed with staves and explosive charges commonly used to stun fish.

For the first time, they said, they confronted not the black-clad riot police they had faced in the past, but members of the People's Armed Police, who wore camouflage fatigues and carried pistols and automatic rifles. Soon after nightfall, after an exchange of police tear gas and the villagers' explosive charges, they said the first volleys of automatic rifle fire crackled in the darkness.

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