By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
BOBAI, China, May 22 -- Word came down from the central government in Beijing that it was time to strengthen enforcement of China's one-child policy.
In response, people here said, birth control bureaucrats showed up in a half-dozen towns with sledgehammers and threatened to knock holes in the homes of people who had failed to pay fines imposed for having more than one child. Other family planning officials, backed by hired toughs, pushed their way into businesses owned by parents of more than one child and confiscated everything from sacks of rice to color televisions, they said.
The brutal fine-collection drive was launched last week around Bobai, 110 miles southeast of Nanning in southern China's Guangxi province. It constituted the latest example of abusive local enforcement of a policy that China's leadership says is vital to maintaining swift economic growth and spreading its benefits more evenly among a population already at 1.3 billion people.
Local officials eager to meet population quotas have frequently been accused of forcing women to submit to abortions or sterilizations to keep the birthrate down. But the problem in the Bobai area was that lax enforcement of the policy over the years led to a high number of families with several children -- and suddenly the local family planning bureau wanted to collect its fines or else.
"The people who didn't have money, they threatened to knock their houses down, or punch holes in the roof," a resident said.
But the farmers of Bobai and nearby towns have been known since the Qing Dynasty for resistance to highhanded rulers. True to their legacy, they rose up against the collection teams, whom they decried as bandits. Backed by their sons, thousands of peasants and townspeople encircled government and birth control centers across surrounding Bobai County, residents here said, stoning riot police brought in to quell the unrest and, in some places, trashing local offices.
"There was trouble in all the villages around here," said a truck driver who, like most of those interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution by local officials.
Even near the main county office building, a witness said, a white banner was unfurled calling for revenge against Su Jianzhong, the Bobai County Communist Party secretary. "Crack down on the head of the bandits, Su Jianzhong," it advertised for all to see, until authorities pulled it down.
The townspeople were all the more unwilling to accept authorities' demands for payment because, as frequently is the case in China, they expressed belief that local officials were generally corrupt and that the money for fines would go to line their pockets rather than into government coffers.
The disorder, which rolled from village to village between Thursday and Saturday, caused a number of injuries to police and protesters, according to witnesses. Townspeople and villagers, relaying unverified reports, said an unknown number of people were killed. Several people reported seeing police carrying pistols and rifles, but there were no firsthand reports of gunfire.
A witness in the nearby town of Dunbu said two dozen officials dressed in uniforms and carrying electric cattle prods barged into a small store near his house Thursday evening and demanded the owner pay an overdue fine or his inventory would be carried off. Neighbors quickly gathered around, he said, and scores of police officers were called in to back up the family planning officials. By the end of the evening, several thousand townspeople and hundreds of police were facing off near local government offices, he said, and the stones began to fly.
The witness said he saw three bloodied protesters, including a primary school student, before the melee subsided and authorities imposed an overnight curfew. Similar outbreaks of violence were reported in the towns of Yongan, Dadong and Shabo, where offices were reported ransacked and police cars burned. Zhang Ming, a local official in Shabo, was among those who witnesses said were injured by the flying stones.
The witnesses said local authorities and police seemed surprised by the vehemence of the townspeople's reaction. A local television report referred to those who participated in the violence as "rebels."
"The police looked like they were afraid," one witness said of the clashes in his neighborhood.
The Bobai County government issued a statement saying government property was destroyed by the protesters and blaming the outburst on excessive enforcement tactics and attempts by officials to overcharge families with more than one child. By Tuesday, the area was calm except for a continued police presence in the most restive towns and the frequent passage of Public Security Bureau vehicles with sirens blipping.
The way the one-child policy has been interpreted in this region of fertile rice paddies and pineapple fields, families whose first child is a daughter can try again for a son but have to pay a $375 fine for their second offspring, parents said. Those who give birth to third and fourth children have to pay progressively higher fines, residents said.
But, they added, Bobai authorities traditionally have been lenient about collecting the money, realizing that farmers often face a cash shortage between crops. As a result, many Bobai area families, particularly in tradition-bound farming villages along dirt lanes cutting between paddies, have three or more children. For many of them, the new determination to enforce the rules meant financial stress, and for others financial impossibility.
Chen Hua, 32, a mother of two, said she and her husband were suddenly faced with demands for swift payment of their fine. After pleading for a delay, they coughed up the money just before the May 1 Labor Day holiday. Part of the money came from Chen's earnings as a taxi driver, a trade she plies in the nearby city of Yulin for $90 a month while her husband tends the family farm.
Chen said they had a daughter, now 8, but wanted a son as well. He was born six years ago, making them liable for the $375 fine that they paid three weeks ago.
"It's worth it," she said. "I finally got a son. In our area, if you don't have a son, you haven't made it. In the countryside, if we don't have a son, who will take care of us when we are old?"