Anger Over Rape-Murder Case Sparks Riot in China

Shenzhen, China
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 30, 2008

BEIJING, June 29 -- Thousands of people thronged a police station in southwestern China to protest the alleged coverup of a teenage girl's rape and murder, witnesses and officials reported Sunday. The crowd set fire to a government complex and several police vehicles.

The violence, which began Saturday, was brought under control by authorities at about 2 a.m. Sunday. There were conflicting reports about the number of injuries and arrests as news of the riot spread over the Internet. Pictures and video from the incident were posted on Chinese online discussion forums and Web sites but quickly became inaccessible, apparently as government censors stepped in.

Spasms of public anger against perceived injustices or government corruption occur periodically in China, but this weekend's riot, in the seat of Weng'an County in Guizhou province, was larger and more destructive than usual. The government has been anxious to contain such incidents, especially as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in August, pledging to show the world its prosperous, "harmonious" society, as the ruling Communist Party calls it.

Children as young as 12 began blocking the entrance to the police station sometime after 4:30 p.m. Saturday, said a middle school teacher who witnessed the incident. The teacher, who identified himself only by his surname, Zhang, said he then saw students carry two police cruisers into the building's first floor and set them ablaze.

"Police could not control them," he said in a telephone interview.

An official at the Weng'an County People's Hospital said five injured police officers were being treated there. He declined to comment on the extent of their injuries or whether others had been admitted. Repeated calls to the local public security bureau went unanswered Sunday.

An official at the local firehouse said it took six hours to put out the flames, which in online videos could be seen ripping through the first and second floors of the building complex. Thick black smoke billowed from the many broken windows. Cars that had been smashed and overturned were burning in front of the complex, which housed the local Communist Party committee, the county government and the local police station.

"Some of the people fought with us," the official said. "They didn't want us to put out the fire."

Five firefighters were injured and one was hospitalized, he said. The videos showed a crowd estimated at 10,000 people, most of whom were watching or taking cellphone pictures as small groups of teenagers ran with sticks or metal rods in their hands.

The Reuters news agency cited a faxed statement from the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy that said the riot erupted after police used force to disperse hundreds of students who had gathered at the complex to press police about the case. The Hong Kong-based group said one protester was killed and more than 150 injured. It said about 200 people, including dozens of students, had been arrested.

The Associated Press reported that officials walked the streets with megaphones and that local television stations were broadcasting pleas Sunday for participants to turn themselves in.

The state-controlled New China News Agency published a short story on the incident Sunday morning that said the chaos broke out after people were "dissatisfied with the medico-legal expertise on the death of a local girl student."

According to Internet and news service reports, the student's body was found in a river last week. After a brief investigation, police declared her death a suicide. The girl's family, however, said there was evidence she had been raped and most likely murdered. Three suspects who had been seen with the girl shortly before she disappeared were brought in for questioning but released the next day. Two of the suspects are relatives of local public security officials, the reports said.

Last week, the girl's uncle went to the public security bureau but was severely beaten by people who relatives believe are connected to the police, according to Internet reports. The uncle reportedly died from his injuries Saturday afternoon, sparking the demonstration. Calls to a family member were not answered Sunday.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company