Hundreds of men armed with shotguns, clubs and pipes on Saturday attacked a group of farmers who were resisting official demands to surrender land to a state-owned power plant, witnesses said. Six farmers were killed and as many as 100 others were seriously injured in one of China's deadliest incidents of rural unrest in years.
The farmers, who had pitched tents and dug foxholes and trenches on the disputed land to prevent the authorities from seizing it, said they suspected the assailants were hired by corrupt local officials. They said scores of villagers were beaten or stabbed and several were shot in the back while fleeing.
Reached by telephone, a spokesman for the provincial government said he could not confirm or discuss the incident. "So far, we've been ordered not to issue any information about it," he said.
Large contingents of police have been posted around Shengyou, about 100 miles southwest of Beijing, but bruised and bandaged residents smuggled a reporter into the village Monday and led him to a vast field littered with abandoned weapons, spent shell casings and bloody rags. They also provided footage of the melee made with a digital video camera.
Despite the attack, the farmers remained defiant and in control of the disputed land. They also occupied the local headquarters of the ruling Communist Party, where they placed the bodies of six of their slain compatriots. A crowd of emotional mourners filled the courtyard outside; hanging over the front gate was a white flag with a word scrawled in black ink: "Injustice."
Residents said party officials abandoned the building and fled town, apparently because they feared they would be blamed for the killings.
"We want to know who gave the orders, who sent them to attack us," said Niu Zhanzong, 50, a bald, wiry farmer who made a video of part of the battle before men knocked him down, smashed his camera and broke his arm. "We hope the central government will come and investigate. We believe in party central, but we don't believe in the local police."
The seizure of farmland by local officials to build roads, dams, factories and other projects, often for personal profit, has emerged as an increasingly volatile issue in the Chinese countryside, where the government owns all land and gives farmers only long-term leases. Peasants often complain they are unfairly compensated when officials confiscate their plots, and have staged hundreds of protests over the issue in recent years.
The incident in Shengyou, a wheat- and peanut-farming village in central Hebei province, was unusual because the men sent to suppress the peasants appeared to be hired thugs rather than police, and because the conflict resulted in so many casualties.
Residents said the men arrived in six white buses before dawn, most of them wearing hard hats and combat fatigues, and they struck without warning, repeatedly shouting "Kill!" and "Attack!" Police failed to respond to calls for help until nearly six hours later, residents said, long after the assailants had departed.
Access to firearms is strictly regulated in China, but villagers said the men fired on them with hunting shotguns and flare guns. They also wielded metal pipes fitted with sharp hooks on the end. Because of the preparation, residents suggested the men might have ties to organized crime groups working with local officials.
The attack was first reported Monday in the Beijing News, a state-run tabloid known for testing party censors. The paper said one of the assailants died in the clash, and reported that authorities have already dismissed the party chief and mayor of the nearby city of Dingzhou, which governs Shengyou.
Officials in Dingzhou declined to answer questions, and managers of the Hebei Guohua Dingzhou Power Plant did not return phone calls.
Villagers said they began camping on the disputed land in the fall of 2003, after the plant announced that it would build a facility there for storing coal ash. Twelve villages surrendered land for the project, but peasants in Shengyou refused to give up their 67 acres. The plant agreed to pay them about $1,800 per acre, but residents said the offer did not meet national guidelines. They also accused local officials of stealing some of the money and demanded a full accounting.
Instead, Dingzhou police began harassing the village, detaining its leaders and once going so far as to surround the town in what residents said was an attempt to cut off food and water shipments. The farmers responded by digging in to block construction and keeping a 24-hour watch on the land, even through the winter.
The standoff appears to have to caused serious problems for the power plant, which the provincial government describes as one of its most important projects. A party newspaper said last year that the land dispute could force parts of the plant to shut down.
Two months ago, a group of 20 young toughs attempted to chase the farmers off the land, but the villagers fought back, captured one of the men and refused orders from party officials to hand him over to local police, residents said. Instead, they kept him in a pit.
During Saturday's attack, some of the assailants appeared to be searching for the man, witnesses said. Farmers later moved him to a shed in the party headquarters and allowed a reporter to speak to him.
The man, Zhu Xiaorui, 23, appeared frightened but healthy, although his ankles were shackled. He said he had been recruited by a man he met at the Beijing nightclub where he worked. He said he was taken to the village, given a metal pipe and told to "teach a lesson" to the farmers, and was promised $12 for the job.
"The villagers have treated me kindly," Zhu said, tears in his eyes. He added that he did not want to be turned over to Dingzhou police because he was afraid they would kill him for confessing to the farmers.
Across from Zhu's cell, the bodies of the slain villagers lay in separate rooms with shrines of candles and incense in front of their coffins. Occasionally, family members in the courtyard rushed forward, wailing, and the crowd struggled to hold them back.
Relatives identified the victims as Niu Zhanbao, 46, a pig farmer who suffered a fatal gunshot wound to his back; Hou Tongshun, 56, a father of three who was struck in the chest by a hook; Niu Shunlin, 26, a migrant worker who was both shot and stabbed; Niu Chengshe, 49, who suffered a fatal blow to the head; and Zhao Yingzhi, 50, who suffered multiple wounds.
Niu Tongyin, 62, one of the leaders of the farmers' movement, bled to death from a stab wound. His body lay in the Party Members' Activity Room, under portraits of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Engels.
Researcher Vivian Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.