Police in China Hurt Villagers, Protesters Say

By HOWARD W. FRENCH

New York Times

January 17, 2006

SHANGHAI, Jan. 16 - A week of protests by villagers in China's southern industrial heartland over government land seizures exploded into violence over the weekend, as thousands of police officers brandishing automatic weapons and electric stun batons moved to suppress the demonstrations, residents of the village said Monday.

The residents of the village, Panlong, in Guangdong Province, said that as many as 60 people were wounded and that at least one person, a 13-year-old girl, was killed by security forces. The police denied any responsibility, saying the girl died of a heart attack.

Villagers said that the police had chased and beaten protesters and bystanders alike, and that villagers had retaliated by smashing police cars and throwing rocks at security forces in hit-and-run attacks.

Residents said Monday that the village had been sealed off, with the police monitoring roads into the area to check identification and bar access to outsiders. News of the violence appears to have been blocked in China.

The residents of Panlong said their anger had been set off by a government land acquisition program that they had been led to believe in 2003 was part of a construction project to build a superhighway connecting the nearby city of Zhuhai with Beijing. Later, the villagers learned the land was in fact being resold to developers to set up special chemical and garment industrial zones in the area.

The clash in Panlong was the second time in just over a month in which large numbers of Chinese security forces, including paramilitary troops, were deployed to put down a local demonstration. The earlier protest, 240 miles north in the village of Dongzhou on Dec. 6 over the construction of a power plant, was one of thousands recently in rural China over the environment and land use, with little relief available through the country's legal system.

The protests coincided with reports that the secretive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, was visiting the province to see the country's booming industrial region. The visit, though never publicly confirmed by Beijing, is a poorly kept secret, and some residents said his presence in the area over the weekend might have contributed to the nervousness of the security forces.

In Panlong on Saturday, the sixth day of protests, "the police arrived at 8 p.m., and then started beating people from 9 p.m., trying to disperse the crowd," said a schoolteacher who spoke from the village by telephone, giving her name only as Yang. "When this happened, the crowd got very angry and lots of people picked up stones on the ground and threw them at the policemen. After being attacked, policemen were furious. They just beat up everyone, using their batons."

Villagers said the demonstrations had begun as silent sit-ins but grew more boisterous by the day, as more people joined in. Eventually, they said, as many as 10,000 police officers were deployed, roughly twice the number of protesters at the peak of the demonstrations, according to some estimates.

In December, in the protest in Dongzhou, residents say as many as 30 people were killed when security forces opened fire on crowds of villagers demonstrating against the construction of a coal-fired power plant in their midst. The provincial authorities have acknowledged three deaths, but blamed the villagers for attacking the police. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have restricted access to the village and have apparently ordered news organizations to sharply limit their coverage of the incident.

Unlike the events at Dongzhou, an out-of-the-way fishing village, the latest confrontation was in a rural enclave in the midst of some of China's biggest and fastest-growing industrial cities.

The region that immediately surrounds Panlong is among the most heavily industrialized anywhere. It was the laboratory and launching pad for the economic reforms put in place by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, which are credited with reviving China and turning it into a global economic powerhouse in the space of a generation.

Panlong is not far from Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhuhai - all large and booming cities virtually created from scratch during China's economic takeoff, which began in so-called special economic zones as part of the country's sweeping economic changes. It is also not far from Guangzhou, the provincial capital, or from Hong Kong, whose investments helped fuel the area's takeoff. The region is not only the scene of some of China's fastest-growing industries, including high-tech manufacturing, textiles and furniture, much of which is exported to the United States, but it is also the scene of some of the country's worst pollution.

For most of the year, visibility over the scrubland plains of the area is so poor that, beyond a few hundred yards, all detail is lost behind a thick gray curtain of eye-stinging haze. Water supplies in the area are equally imperiled by the pollution. The situation has become so bad that even residents of Hong Kong, whose economy is highly dependent on the adjacent region's growth, rue the environmental monster they have helped create.

Increasingly, their ambivalence is shared by rural dwellers in the area, though they were some of the first people to benefit from the opening up of the country to foreign and private investment.

"We have many special zones in this area, and each of them attracts investment," said a man who lives in a village adjacent to Panlong who was interviewed by telephone and gave his name as Hou. "The economic deals set in the past were not favorable, and many zones here have had smaller protests before, but the people were not united."

"Now," he continued, "there are uprisings everywhere."