HONG KONG—Tensions remained high in the southern Chinese township of Dongzhou after the official media broke their four-day silence, reporting three people had died and blaming the violence on villagers.
Dozens of villagers are missing and feared dead after last week’s crackdown, known as the “Dec. 6 incident.”
China’s official Xinhua news agency admitted that three people had died during the violence, shot by police “in alarm.”
It said the villagers had attacked first with knives and home-made explosives, blaming the clashes on “over 170 armed villagers led by instigators Huang Xijun, Lin Hanru, and Huang Xirang.”
“It became dark when the chaotic mob began to throw explosives at the police. Police were forced to open fire in alarm,” Xinhua said, quoting the Guangdong provincial information office. “In the chaos, three villagers died, eight were injured with three of them fatally injured.”
Calling the clashes “a serious law-breaking incident,” the official Guangzhou Daily newspaper said that the police officer in charge at the time of the shootings had been arrested.
“Under exceptionally urgent circumstances, the chief commanding officer at the scene mishandled the situation, causing accidental deaths and injuries,” the paper said. “The procuratorial organ of Shanwei City has brought this person under criminal detention according to law.”
Villagers denied reports they had forced the police to start shooting by throwing Molotov cocktails first. “They started to shoot first,” one woman told RFA Cantonese reporter Grace Kei Lai-see. “They were the ones to start it.”
Right now I don’t really know the actual situation. If you would like to report this, you should go through the usual channels, via the propaganda office.
Residents described scenes of grief and anger in Dongzhou on Friday, with white-clad mourners begging police to leave, or for permission to recover the bodies of loved ones, or burning incense for the dozens of people still missing, feared dead.
“These bullet cases were used to shoot ordinary people on Dec. 6. A few people went out on Dec. 7 and picked them up. By the evening of Dec. 8, the injured, the dead bodies and the bullets were all utterly cleaned away,” a 50-year-old Dongzhou resident surnamed Liu told RFA’s Cantonese service.
“Many older residents and women had been out wearing white, and knelt in front of the soldiers, asking them to leave, to no avail. I don’t know what to say any more. The tanks are still there. All males are being checked coming in and out of the township,” said Liu, who said his young cousin had been hit by a bullet during the crackdown and was now in critical condition in the township’s Yehui Hospital.
“When another brother went to try to find him on Tuesday, he went missing too, and hadn’t been heard of since. I still have my youngest cousin in the Yehui Hospital with a bullet wound, still in critical condition. And his older brother is still missing,” Liu said, saying that overseas media had been slow to react to events in Dongzhou.
Meanwhile, the authorities got to work to make the official version of events known to the 30,000-strong population of Dongzhou, which lies near the port city of Shanwei, in the eastern part of China’s freewheeling and economically booming Guangdong province.
“Just before 9 a.m., they started to put out official broadcasts from the loudspeakers along the streets saying that the violence had been started by the villagers themselves throwing petrol bombs, and that the police were forced to respond—that the violence was led by a few,” one woman told RFA’s Mandarin service reporter Ding Xiao.
Just before 9 a.m., they started to put out official broadcasts from the loudspeakers along the streets saying that the violence had been started by the villagers themselves throwing petrol bombs, and that the police were forced to respond—that the violence was led by a few.
Early Friday, a number of Shanwei municipal officials held a meeting at the gates of the local high school, villagers said, and a number of relatives of those who had died tried to make their way there.
“They were holding a meeting there, and some of the villagers told the uncle of someone who had died to go there. When he got there, he saw a lot of people kneeling in front of the officials, begging them to allow them to recover their dead...Some people went to buy incense and lit it for the dead. Then they were crying themselves crazy—a small group of people.”
One man whose grandson died in the shootings said: “They were kneeling down to ask the armed police to go away and leave us alone...There were around 100-200 villagers. But there was no response.”
He said the authorities had put up posters asking for information on three people who were accused of inciting villagers to protest against the use of land for the power station.
The officials have been warning us—perhaps it’s because some journalists have arrived—not to ‘speak carelessly'... We are supposed to say that the dead were killed by our own during the violence, and not to mention that they were shot by the police.
Others were still waiting for news of missing loved ones. Estimates of those dead, feared missing, were between 20 and 30, with many unconfirmed reports circulating that bodies had been destroyed.
“Some people said they saw police dressing up three of the villagers’ bodies in police uniforms and taking photos of them,” one man said. “Some also said that several bodies had already been taken to the crematorium and that they had also been changed into police uniforms.”
“The officials have been warning us—perhaps it’s because some journalists have arrived—not to ‘speak carelessly’,” the Dongzhou woman said. “We are supposed to say that the dead were killed by our own during the violence, and not to mention that they were shot by the police.”
An official at the press office of the Guangdong provincial government in Guangzhou declined to comment when contacted Friday by RFA. “Right now I don’t really know the actual situation. If you would like to report this, you should go through the usual channels, via the propaganda office," he said.
Calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing during office hours went unanswered Friday.
Villagers rejected government plans tabled in late October to pay out 600,000 yuan (U.S. $74,000) a year in compensation for land taken up by the power plant.
“Dongzhou has a population of around 30,000 people, so that works out at between 10 and 15 yuan per person per month,” a local representative surnamed Huang told RFA’s Mandarin service at the time.
“To put it bluntly, that’s not even enough to buy toilet paper. We villagers think that this is unreasonable.”
Under China’s existing arrangements, all land belongs to the state, but land-use rights and limited leases can be sold and exchanged on the open market.
Under the Household Responsibility System brought in by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, rural authorities contract land to the collective, often a village, which in turn distributes it to individual households.
But heavily indebted local governments often fall back on the use of rural land within their jurisdiction for property developments. Rural protesters have frequently reported the use of secret meetings, bullying tactics and mob violence by governments to enforce unpopular land transactions.
Callers to RFA’s Mandarin-language hotlines sharply criticized the crackdown.
“I heard on RFA that at least two, could be four, villagers in Shanwei were shot dead by police….Last year here in Yunnan a policeman shot dead a woman and her son. Are those who are supposed to maintain law and order killing people?” one caller from the southwestern province of Yunnan said.
“Hasn’t the government been singing the tune that it’s a harmonious society we live in? But they are using force to rob farmers of their land. Guangdong is a relatively open place and yet such things could happen there. You can imagine what it’s like for farmers in other parts of China.”
And a caller from the eastern province of Jiangsu said: “It’s truly regrettable that decision-makers in China are trying to demonstrate that only through violence, bloodshed and gunfire can they control society. Once gets the sense that China is on the verge of a catastrophe.”
Original reporting in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see and He Shan, and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.