HONG KONG—Authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing have launched an investigation into violent clashes between local residents and armed employees of a local mine, following an environmental dispute that has simmered for months.
"There were between 10 and 20 people [beaten]," a healthcare worker at the Gaoqiao township clinic said following clashes Friday between hundreds of local farmers and men hired to protect the mine.
"They have all been transferred to the county hospital, " she said. "Right now we don't know their condition. Some of them were seriously injured. It's not entirely clear what implements were used to hit them. They were all farmers from around here."
We are all farmers with fields to till. Now there is no water for irrigation."
An official who answered the phone at the Kai county government, which oversees Gaoqiao township, confirmed that some people had been injured, and that local authorities were now investigating.
"These clashes you talk about, well actually there were people injured on both sides, none of them seriously," he said.
"We are in the middle of dealing with this issue, which has been making progress in fits and starts for some time," the official said.
'Gap' in expectations
"The water resources and land bureaus are all involved in this, but there is probably a gap between the compensation the villagers expect, and that which the mine is prepared to give."
Villagers accuse the government of appropriating funds earmarked by the mine to compensate them for the pollution of their water supply and land subsidence, which has caused the collapse of many of their homes.
"The impact on ordinary people around here has been enormous," a local resident surnamed Li said. "There's no potable water here and our houses are collapsing. And then the factory bosses hire thugs to beat people. The were about 20 people who were beaten half to death."
She said the violence was sparked Friday by the arrival of around 1,000 local residents, most of whom went to see what was happening.
"Even the onlookers got beaten up," Li said. "So of course they were going to fight back. After all, the whole township was there to watch events."
"They turned on the people, some of whom called 110 for the police. No one at the government offices would pick up the telephone. But they arrived pretty quickly when people attacked some of their own officials."
Probe under way
Police acknowledged the incident but declined to give further details.
"We will make an official announcement when we have completed our investigations into this incident," an officer who answered the phone at the Gaoqiao police station said.
"For the time being I can't tell you anything. You don't need to ask me [if anyone was detained]. You'll be able to work that out for yourself."
Reports from the scene said angry villagers smashed up around 10 police vehicles, burning some of them.
Another local resident surnamed Yang said the hired men struck first.
"They attacked people even before they got as far as the gate of the mine. Everyone was still on the public highway," she said.
"The attackers were all hired by the mine. They were prepared. There were 80-90 of them. They beat people up very badly, injuring more than 20 people. There was one old man of 60-odd who was beaten,and went to hospital."
No water to till fields
Yang said the dispute had simmered for several years over the pollution of the villagers' water supply by waste effluent from the mine. There was also subsidence caused by the mine, which had led to landslides, and cracks in a lot of people's houses.
"There is no water left now. We are all farmers with fields to till. Now there is no water for irrigation. We have to spend at least two hours a day just fetching water now. Our houses are all collapsing, too. A lot of houses have collapsed."
Local sources said the mine had already agreed to allocate 4.5 million yuan (U.S.$660,000) in compensation to local officials in 2007 to help them clean up the water supply and repair houses in the area around Qingshan village.
But none of that money had found its way to the villagers, who began protesting at the beginning of the year.
Talks in November between the mine and local residents yielded an agreement by the mine owners to pay just 300,000 yuan. However, no agreement had been reached about how this money would be delivered to the people who needed it.
An employee who answered the phone at the Gaosheng mine said that the government was investigating the incident, and that the mine had stopped production, at least for the time being.
"None of the bosses are here," he said. "There is no one in the mine now...It is not [operating]."
A second employee at the mine said villagers had been blockading the mine and preventing it from operating for a month. The mine bosses had asked the government to help with negotiations, but with no result.
She blamed official corruption for the continuing standoff. "None of the employees was here at the mine when the clashes took place, so I can't tell you exactly what happened," she said.
"But the farmers have been blockading the mine for more than a month now. The mine has been sending reports on the situation to the government for a very long time now, asking it to give the money to the villagers."
"But there is a lot of corruption in the government, and the villagers don't trust the government. The villagers are really the victims in this," she said.
"As workers at the mine, we can understand their mood. The farmers want the mine to give the money to them directly. But this is such a big mine. It wouldn't be appropriate for us to do that. That's the fear, anyway."
One villager said: "The village government and the township government all have shares in the mine, so they will take steps to help the managers. Nowadays even the highest-ranking ones in the county are corrupt. They are all rotten."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung. 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.