HONG KONG—When Chinese security forces opened fire on local protesters in the southern township of Dongzhou two years ago, the world suddenly took notice as never before of China’s surging rural unrest.
Now, as Dongzhou remembers its dead—the official tally is three—reports of similar rural protests over land acquisition by local government, among other grievances, are surfacing several times a week. Meanwhile, life-threatening pollution problems and unpaid wages are likely to send China's urbanites out onto the streets.
Mass protests in the southeastern port city of Xiamen earlier this year persuaded local officials to beat a strategic retreat on plans to build a paraxylene (PX) plant in the city for a while.
But residents are planning a new series of demonstrations as news has emerged that the government is once more pushing the proposal to the fore.
The municipal government held a news conference Wednesday saying that an environmental impact assessment into the proposed plant had already been completed, along with a public consultation lasting 10 days.
My injuries are still not healed; I still have pain in my heart and my arm. I am unable to take a job now, and my child is still young. My wife is sick. Every day I have to go begging for money.
Online forums saw calls for further mass demonstrations in the form of a “collective walk” beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday morning outside the municipal library, and walking to the city government offices to show the level of opposition to the plans.
One Xiamen resident told RFA’s Cantonese service that no formal notification had been sent out of a demonstration, but that he would definitely attend if other people did.
“I would definitely go on a protest. We are all very concerned about this issue. This project would have an effect on the citizens of Xiamen if it were ever built. We are dead against such a thing.” He said he believed such projects should be built away from major population centers.
Another Xiamen resident agreed: “In another 10 days, the government will announce whether or not this project will go ahead. The environmental assessment came out yesterday. Now they are running a consultation to hear the opinions of ordinary citizens.”
An employee on duty at the Haicang district police station said so far no formal application to hold a demonstration on Saturday had been lodged with police. “As long as it is legal, the police will not interfere,” he said. “But if it’s illegal then the government will definitely intervene. Only protests which have been applied for and approved in advance are legal.”
The first Xiamen protests were sparked by a mass SMS message sent to cellphones in the city.
Meanwhile, thousands of petitioners who gathered outside China’s state television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing were dispersed by police. They had gathered there to “speak about injustice” on a day marking the importance of the rule of law and the legal system.
Protester Chen Yingcai said the event was to highlight the beatings, detentions and even labor camp sentences routinely suffered by anyone in China trying to pursue an official grievance.
“Tomorrow is Legal Day, and this is the first time we have used this sort of event to publicize our grievances.”
“This is a day for airing grievances; it is mostly against the labor camp sentences that this is aimed,” he said.
Chinese authorities have the power to impose “administrative sentences” of up to three years’ “re-education through labor” without trial, if they believe the person is a bad social influence.
The petitioner protests follow an attempt by around 10,000 petitioners to sign a petition delivered to Beijing on the eve of the 17th Party Congress in October.
Their demands were that the government publicly recognize that the detention of petitioners was against the law, that they clean up the “black prison” system of impromptu, unofficial detention centers for detained petitioners, and release all petitioners currently held in detention centers, labor camps or sentenced by courts to jail terms for their activities.
But the detentions have continued.
Liu Chunbao, a petitioner from the northeastern province of Liaoning, was taken to a Beijing police station on Sunday without any bureaucratic procedures.
“I am now in the Yangqiao police station,” he told RFA’s Mandarin service by cellphone. “The police vehicle is already here [from Liaoning] to pick me up. I’ve been arguing with them that they can’t arbitrarily detain me like this. Just now I narrowly missed cracking my head open on a wall.”
“I just wanted to tell the whole world about the way they treat petitioners. They are probably going to take me back and put me under house arrest. The minivan is here. I know what’s going to happen. I’ve been detained so many times,” Liu said.
In Shicheng county, in China’s eastern province of Jiangxi, scores of villagers were injured in clashes with hundreds of armed police over a government land expropriation scheme earlier this week.
Villagers told RFA’s Mandarin service they were supposed to have been compensated, except that local officials skimmed off most of the compensation payments, leaving little left over for the farmers.
“I am growing a kind of bamboo shoot in my fields and I can’t harvest them for another 20 days yet,” a local farmer, identified as Miss Wen, said.
“We oppose the bulldozing of our fields when we haven’t even received the compensation money yet. When they brought the digging machines over, my dad went up to the driver and asked him not to go there yet.”
“I also went up on the machine to try to get him off. I didn’t want there to be a fight. There were only a few of us, and so many government officials. As soon as I went up there I tugged on the sleeve of Court Official Chen. He grabbed hold of me and head-butted me. Other people beat me to the ground and rolled me into the next terraced field,” Wen said.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesting farmers in Hepu county, in the southwestern region of Guangxi.
Three thousand sugarcane farmers clashed with police while protesting against a sugar company which bought their sugar cane and then made deductions from their payments, RFA’s Cantonese service reported. Four villagers were hurt.
Protests often have an impact on government policy. But, as campaigners in Dongzhou find, that impact often results in a hardening of official attitudes, at further cost to local people.
“We took incense and candles there for an offering today,” a Dongzhou villager surnamed Huang said Thursday. “There were a lot of people there; relatives and local people. When I was there there were about 100 people.
"Today is the second anniversary of Dec. 6. The local people are commemorating the bloodshed at the place where the government opened fire and killed people.”
For many, the consequences of involvement in mass protests are lifelong, even if they happen by accident.
Dongzhou resident Tang Daxiang was injured when he was hit by bullets in the shoulder and back. He said: "My injuries are still not healed; I still have pain in my heart and my arm. I am unable to take a job now, and my child is still young. My wife is sick. Every day I have to go begging for money from the local authorities, from the working group, from the Honghaiwan office."
"I may get 200 yuan here, or 300 yuan (U.S.$27) there. The People’s Hospital won’t give me my medical notes; they say it’s on instructions from the government, that I’m not allowed to have them."
"That evening, two years ago I was on my way to see my mother. I didn’t do anything, and yet I got shot."
"I took a bullet. It went into my shoulder and out of my back."
To this day, the villagers have yet to see any of the compensation that was promised them for the land they lost to the Honghaiwan power station project. While construction has gone ahead on the power plant regardless of local opposition, supporting projects have been continually stalled.
There have been several protests of at least 1,000 people in the past year and a half. This continual pressure has meant that the Honghaiwan Power Station has been unable to complete a crucial pylon, compromising its ability to start producing power and sending it out to customers.
A villager surnamed Lin said local officials had no apparent intention to sort out the situation to villagers' satisfaction. He said the villagers wouldn't back down. "We hoped the government would sort this out, but they don’t care."
"We won’t change our stance. We won’t let them start work again," he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao, Fang Yuan, Yan Xiu and Gao Shan, and in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and Grace Kei Lai-see. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.