LUOKAN VILLAGE, China — Invoking the threat of terrorism, Chinese police for the first time in years have started carrying guns and, with little training, using them.
The fatal effects have rippled across the country, reaching even this tiny mountain village.
China’s removal of a ban on police guns came in response to a gruesome attack on a train station several hundred miles from here, but it has given the police almost blanket authority to shoot whenever they see fit.
More than a decade into America’s war on terror, China is launching its own. And experts worry that the flood of newly armed police — combined with poor training and the government’s take-no-prisoners attitude — could become as fearful a problem as the terrorism it is intended to combat.
In the latest police-related violence, at least 40 people died Sunday in China’s restive Xinjiang region, according to state-run news media, which attributed the incident to terrorists and identified the deceased as “rioters” shot by police or killed in explosions.
By contrast, the sleepy village of Luokan is about as remote and unlikely a place for terrorism as can be found. Yet when police fatally shot a man recently in the middle of a busy market here, they declared him a terrorist as well and abruptly closed the case.
“But everyone knows this is a lie,” said one villager in a hushed midnight interview inside his home.
“There are no terrorists here,” said another beside him. “The only ones we’re afraid of are the police.”
While police shootings are often viewed with suspicion worldwide — most notably in the death last month of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. — there are few countries where local authorities have as much power as they do in China to suppress all evidence afterward.
No one knows how many people die here from gun violence each year, much less from police shootings, because of government secrecy.
Among the killings publicly reported in the past five months, since the policy change: A man with a history of mental illness shot by police in Sichuan province. An allegedly drunk officer in Luoping county who quarreled with one man and then killed another who was trying to intervene, according to reports quickly taken down by censors.
And at a gun-safety demonstration in front of kindergartners in Henan province, an officer fired a loaded gun, thinking it was empty, and sent a child and several parents to the hospital.
News of such shootings is often deleted. Physical evidence is seized and rarely released, lawyers say. And it is often impossible to find witnesses willing to testify.
Amid growing fears among the public, officers say they have trepidations of their own because many received their new guns with little to no training.
At a recent training session in Shandong province, one detective said, several officers — not aware of the recoil force that comes with shooting — gripped their guns improperly and broke their thumbs.
Some police officers have been issued licenses without visiting the firing range, because their departments are fudging paperwork, according to officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Most of us haven’t shot a gun in years,” said the detective. “A lot of cops are afraid to even hold one.”
Luokan is an isolated village. With few jobs, most here get by on low-paying work in surrounding counties.
The closest airport is in the equally impoverished city of Zhaotong. From there, it takes a six-hour drive through treacherous mountains followed by an hour-and-a-half hike up a single-lane dirt road to get here.
The road has been heavily monitored of late by local police, ever since they killed Fang Jiushu on May 15.
The shooting occurred in the town square in front of hundreds of witnesses on the busiest market day of the week, according to villagers. Yet few today are willing to even say Fang’s name in public.
Several Luokan residents — approached by a foreign journalist who had snuck into their village under the cover of night a few weeks after the shooting — refused to talk. Fang’s friends and relatives were similarly reluctant, believing their phones to be tapped and their houses watched by informants.
Since Fang’s death, they said, government officials have visited many homes, warning all not to talk to outsiders.
But over the course of a night in secret interviews inside their homes, more than a dozen villagers gave their account of the shooting.
And their testimonies, coupled with cellphone pictures they provided of the shooting, contradict many aspects of the government account.
Those who knew Fang, 45, scoffed at the police characterization of the lifelong villager and father of two as a “terrorist.” Before the March 1 attack on the Kunming train station that sparked China’s new guns, they said, the word was seldom heard in their village.
Fang — who earned a living hauling goods in his truck — rarely got into fights, said his aunt Yang Daxiu, 68, but he did have a temper. “If he felt wronged, he was never shy about standing up for himself,” she said.
Last year, a state-owned power company had seized part of Fang’s property to build a transmission tower, she and others said. Such land disputes are often the source of government corruption in China and have ignited much anger among rural residents.
For months, Fang had complained, to no avail. After he protested in front of the village’s government offices, local leaders threw him in jail for several days, relatives said.
On the day he was shot, Fang had told a friend, “What I want is justice.”
So that morning, Fang covered his truck with angry handwritten banners and parked it in front of the same government offices, blocking all traffic, according to authorities and witnesses.
For five hours he negotiated with local leaders over compensation for his land.
At 2 p.m., armed officers suddenly arrived outside the building, according to an account corroborated by more than a dozen witnesses.
Plainclothes police surrounded Fang’s truck, joined by several uniformed SWAT officers, who had been summoned from a large county police department 30 minutes away.
Fang came out of the government building, having apparently agreed to take down his banners. But while he was removing them, officers put Fang’s brother in handcuffs. Seeing that, Fang scrambled to get in his truck.
When officers tried to stop Fang, he showed them a knife inside the truck, according to police. A few witnesses, who knew Fang and saw the knife, said he often kept it in his truck on long hauls as insurance against bandits.
The shooting began once Fang closed the door and started the engine, witnesses said — at least 11 shots total, in quick succession.
It was the first time in decades, residents said, that the crack of gunfire rang out in their village.
Since the discovery of gunpowder more than 1,000 years ago, Chinese authorities have had a complicated history with weapons.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” said China’s Communist founder, Mao Zedong. Perhaps for that reason, China has long had one of the world’s strictest gun policies. Possession of firearms is forbidden to nearly everyone except the party-controlled military.
Since 2003, most police have been barred from carrying guns – except for special SWAT personnel and teams on dangerous operations such as the arrest of armed gangs.
What shocked many wasn’t just the attack’s brutality but its location — deep in the south, far from China’s usual pockets of unrest in western Xinjiang and Tibet.
Exactly what happened inside the train station isn’t clear; the government immediately banned all domestic reports, except for a few details from the state-run news agency.
But according to witnesses and experts who work closely with Kunming police, the initial response from rank-and-file officers was alarmingly weak. One police expert in Kunming said the lead officer on the scene — one of the only ones with a gun — quickly ran out of bullets. Others said the assailants’ rampage continued unabated for as long as 40 minutes, until the arrival of special SWAT police who fatally shot several attackers.
China began arming police soon after. In Shanghai, more than 1,000 patrol officers began carrying revolvers; in Guangzhou, more than 4,000. In Beijing, authorities stationed newly armed police at major subway stations and doubled the ammunition carried by SWAT teams.
Along with the guns, Chinese leaders issued this new rule: When dealing with those deemed to be terrorists, officers should shoot instantly, without warning or hesitation.
The problem with the new order is that authorities can use it to justify any shooting, said Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan.
“There’s no need for this extra rule,” Zhang said. “Police with guns should handle terrorists the same way they do any kind of violent attacker.”
In interviews, half a dozen current and retired officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, criticized the government for thrusting police into life-and-death decisions that they are ill-prepared to make.
Giving guns to woefully untrained officers is useless and reckless, said one gun instructor for the Beijing police. “It would probably be much safer for everyone if they were given knives or some other weapon.”
Within three hours of Fang’s death in Luokan village, police had cleared the officers of wrongdoing and issued a statement on the incident.
The police shot Fang, the brief statement said, to prevent him from plowing into villagers with his truck.
But witnesses said that no bystanders appeared to be in immediate danger and that even after police started shooting, the truck was only inching along.
“It was moving slower than a person walks,” said one village elder.
Local police declined to answer questions about the incident. Two police representatives — upon hearing Fang’s name in separate calls — immediately claimed the phone signal had grown weak and hung up. Before also hanging up, a third police representative said briefly that even if Fang wasn’t a terrorist, he clearly intended to hurt others.
In their brief May 15 statement, authorities also said three villagers were injured by Fang.
But one of them, tracked down weeks later, said he received his minor injuries only after police shot Fang and caused him to lose control of the truck, which slid into his motorcycle.
According to that man — Wang Ancai, 45 — a government official visited him while he was in the hospital and offered him $160 — a year’s wages for many villagers — as “compensation for being injured by a terrorist.”
“I don’t think it was an act of terrorism,” Wang said, but he took the money without question.
After Fang’s death, his wife, along with their 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, moved back to her home village, abandoning the property he died trying to preserve.
Recently, his relatives handed over all records and testimony from the shooting to a woman named Yu Jiaci, who claimed to represent a nonprofit organization wanting to help.
But there are signs that Yu may have been sent by authorities in their latest effort to acquire all lingering evidence of the shooting. Online records show the nonprofit was formed just days after the shooting. And when contacted by a foreign newspaper, Yu sent a flurry of threatening texts.
Similarly, authorities have managed to suppress the biggest piece of evidence of all: Fang’s body.
On the day he died, after the shooting stopped, Fang fell out of the truck into a bloody heap on the ground. Witnesses said it was hard to tell whether he was already dead because officers immediately picked up his limp body, slapped on handcuffs and stuffed him into the back of a police car.
To this day, no one, including his family, has seen him again.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.