April 21, 2005

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China's other riots (Updated April 18th)

Note: This is expanding on previous coverage. The original post and earlier updates are below the fold, in chronological order. The Japan/China riots are covered in another post.

Update April 18th

* ACB retells the story of Hankantou. Comprehensive coverage of the causes of these riots.

Yesterday's Daily Linklets mentioned a 30,000 person riot near Dongyang with a report by The Guardian. Today the SCMP has a full report on the village of Huaxi where the riots took place. The villagers are proudly displaying their spoils of war:


I've reproduced the full SCMP article below the fold or you can read another account in The Times. The end result is the same: the villagers are running Huaxi and have kicked the Government out. Rebellion against the rapid pace of development? A fight back by peasants against corruption and greed? Displaced farmers fighting against unjust land grabs and inadequate compensation?

Or the thin edge of a very, very big wedge?

The current Japan/China tensions may in part be orchestrated by the government. But these spontaneous outbursts are a different beast. Interestingly at the moment the Chinese Government doesn't seem sure how to handle either.

Other reading

* Brothers Judd.
* Mutant Frog.
* ACB has plenty more background and information and ponders the domino effect and potential implications.

Updated 14th April

* Publius Pundit summarises the thoughts of Thomas Lifson and Luis Ramirez on growing unrest in China. It re-iterates my point that this riot is far more significant that the anti-Japan ones. The timing may be more than co-incidental. Richard isn't impressed by the post and notes there's no sign of a crack in the CCP's rule. That said for a "member of the reality based community" his criticism of The China Project (mentioned below) doesn't wash. Geroge W. Bush's attitude to Taiwan is the key factor in cross-strait relations. You might not like the man, but his attitude is crucial. That said would have applied if John Kerry was Prez.
* Daily Demarche is also summarising various recent events in China as part of the China project, orginally explained here.
* Praktike summed it nicely: Too much China, not enough time. There's always a lot going on with China, but at the moment it seems a particularly "eventful" time.

In riot village, the government is on the run

Didi Kirsten Tatlow

Huaxi is a village in mutiny. Instead of going to work or school on Monday morning, thousands of people milled around its broad, paved streets and - despite the steady rain - the atmosphere was upbeat, even jubilant.
Huaxi has the government on the run.

More than 1,000 police and officials, who arrived before dawn on Sunday to tear down road blocks erected by villagers, instead found themselves involved in a pitched battle.

The police fled.

As I walk towards the middle school at the edge of town, the crowd thickens. Broken bricks and sticks litter the ground.

Inside the school compound, 14 cars lie upside down, windows smashed, interiors ripped up, number plates bent.

A police uniform is draped over one car - a trophy.

On the other side of the large school yard lie dozens of buses. Their tyres have been slashed, and windows smashed. Some have been heaved on their sides.

The trouble in this verdant, hilly part of Zhejiang province , two hours south of the provincial capital of Hangzhou , started in 2001 when local officials handed 66 hectares of land to 13 private and state-owned chemical plants. Wang Weikang , 58, who still farms 933 square metres of land, said villagers didn't know what was happening when they suddenly discovered the land they farmed belonged to someone else.

Villagers say the village committee signed a contract with nearby Dongyang city behind their backs. Dongyang government spokesman Chen Qixian said the deal was lawful, since the village committee had the right to represent villagers.

Mainland farmers do not own their land, instead farming it on 30-year contracts from the government, so no-one had to ask the farmers individually.

The plants were built in 2002 and then, said Mr Wang and other villagers, the sicknesses started.

"Lots of people started falling ill. Some days our eyes would sting ... from the gas from the plants. Babies were born dead or malformed. Nine in the past year alone," he said.

Villagers said the chemical plants polluted the village's water supply. "It had become the colour of soy sauce," said one.

Huaxi's river, the Huashui, runs a strange caramel colour, though the main eyesore are the heaps of plastic bags that cling to its edges.

"We want our land back. We don't want compensation. We want vegetables to grow again and the water to run clean," said Mr Wang.

Opposition to the plants grew.

Unable to get the attention of local officials, villagers went to Beijing to petition the central government - also without success.

Then in March, Dongyang Mayor Tan Yong barred them from a meet-the-public forum.

To stop shipments from the plants, villagers threw up road blocks on March 24 and built straw shelters.

One leader, Wang Zhongfa, was arrested for allegedly inciting the overthrow of the government. That inflamed tempers further. Many of those manning the shelters were members of the Huaxi old people's association, one of the main groups opposed to the chemical plant.

On Monday, many of them sat in one remaining shelter, which they had decorated with trophies from Sunday's battle: police uniforms, riot shields, an ID card, empty tear gas canisters and machetes.

Villagers say when the police - numbering 3,000, they say - arrived, they also brought cattle prods. Wang Xiaomei , 70, said: "Those police. They were worse than the Japanese".

Early on Sunday, rumours started spreading that two elderly women had died when police tried to storm the village and angry villagers poured out of their homes, driving police into the school yard. The police barricaded the gate, but villagers bashed down the brick school wall.

They stoned police. Hand-to-hand combat ensued.

Mr Chen, the Dongyang official who was at the scene, said 36 people, 33 of them police or officials, had been admitted to hospital. "Five of the injured are in serious condition," he said.

But Mr Chen denied anyone had died, and villagers were unable to provide any details of the deaths. "Please believe me. There's no way the government could be covering it up," said Mr Chen.

Yet the government is spooked.

On the way out of town, a siren started up behind us and a tannoy barked: "Pull over!"

I was detained by police, my notes destroyed and pictures wiped from my camera. I have to sign a confession - I broke the relevant reporting regulations of the People's Republic of China by going to Huaxi without asking for permission.

Officials say they generally get a month or two's notice from foreign journalists. Enough time to miss the story, they agree.

Mr Chen said local officials might have stolen money intended for villagers.

He said the situation turned nasty after an influential member of the village committee was unable to persuade a hard-nosed plant boss to pay more for the land.

"Also we are unable to control the factories 24 hours a day. It may be that sometimes they discharge pollutants illegally," he said.

Mr Chen said the government would arrest corrupt local officials if any wrongdoing was confirmed.

But for now, the villagers are in charge of Huaxi and the government is on the run.

April 15th reading

* Echoes has links to several reports on the riot, and notes the WaPo reports the chemical factories that sparked the riots have been closed.

Didi Tatlow's SCMP article on her detention

Normally, when journalists sit down to write their stories, they look at their notes. But I did not have any. They were confiscated by officials on Monday in Dongyang city , Zhejiang province , when I was detained on the way back from reporting a mass riot in nearby Huaxi village.

"Please understand that we have to do this," said Zhang Fahao, director of the local foreign affairs office, my chief captor for six hours that evening. "I'm very sorry. But you broke the law."

Today, an uneasy calm has settled over Huaxi, after up to 30,000 villagers rioted last Sunday against police and cadres who came to tear down roadblocks stopping business at 13 hated chemical plants. Villagers say the plants are making them sick and poisoning the environment.

The riot was big, even by mainland standards. In recent years localised uprisings, especially in rural areas, have become a major issue. Thousands occur each year, and at least a dozen major ones broke out in the last three months of last year alone.

The reasons are almost always the same: government corruption, police abuse and a lack of access to justice.

By the end of the week, the situation had calmed. "Things are quiet now," said one villager by telephone.

Worried for his safety, he did not want his full name to be used. "But I'm not optimistic that this is going to be settled to the villagers' advantage," he said.

"The plants make too much money for the local government. Maybe we need to start demanding they move the village, and leave the plants here."

It would be an innovative solution to what appears an intractable problem in this green corner of Zhejiang. Villagers say the plants, built in 2002 - after local officials handed their farmland over to Dongyang officials without consultation - were constructed illegally.

A development of that scale must be approved by the State Council. But, citing documents from Dongyang's land commission, villagers say the application was not made. The State Council could not be reached for comment.

Dongyang officials are adamant that despite the violent conflict, the plants will not be moved. "That is impossible now," said Chen Qixian , a Dongyang government spokesman.

A week ago, I was driving out of Huaxi on my way back to Hangzhou , the provincial capital, with the story - literally - in the bag. Villagers had been happy to tell their tale, though their accents were hard to follow.

Huaxi was in an uproar, villagers proudly showing off trashed police and officials' cars, buses, ripped police uniforms and red armbands. It had been a melee of epic proportions.

"We got them on the run," they said. "We are like the heroes in The Water Margin", China's famous 14th century novel in which the righteous and downtrodden fight corrupt officials of all kinds.

But I knew that I could not stay long without attracting attention - someone was bound to call the Dongyang police.

Towards the end of my two-hour stay in the village, a couple of black cars pulled up and several young men got out and stared hard at me. Their sour expressions contrasted sharply with the villagers' joy; it was time to leave. I hurried back to the car and we left town.

About 10 minutes down the road, my driver checked his side-view mirror. "We're being followed," he said. A police siren whined and, over a loudspeaker, we were ordered to pull over.

A policeman stuck his head into the window and gave us a giant grin, setting the tone for what was to become a surreal detention where we were handled with kid gloves - although threat was never far from the surface.

"Please come with me," he said to the driver. They conferred in the police car for 10 minutes. Then the driver came back. "We have to go to Dongyang city," he said.

At Dongyang's best hotel, the Splendid Plaza, a cohort of officials was waiting for me and my three companions, two other foreign journalists I had asked along - knowing there was safety in numbers - and a Chinese assistant.

"Please have dinner with us," they said, smiling and smiling. "We would prefer to continue our journey to Hangzhou," we said. "That won't be possible," said Mr Zhang, the foreign affairs director.

We were shown into a large, red-carpeted room. The men were served tea, the women hot water. About eight officials sat around the dining table, though their numbers changed as they came and went, fielding urgent phone calls on their mobiles. Only Mr Zhang and Mr Chen, the government spokesman, were introduced.

The first of a score of excellent dishes arrived. This was a banquet. "We did that for you because you are foreigners," explained Mr Zhang, smiling. "Can you use chopsticks?"

The questioning began, too. Interspersed with commands to toast each other, the officials asked the questions we knew we could not evade: "Where were you? What were you doing in Huaxi? Had you applied for permission to come to Dongyang?"

Dinner dragged on, and at about 8pm - we were picked up at 6pm - Mr Zhang's assistant put the knife in. With a smile. "We must destroy your reporting notes, and you must give us your pictures.

"Also, we will interview you separately and you must sign a confession that you have broken the law."

Chinese regulations governing the activities of reporters are strict. Non-mainland journalists must apply for permission to travel anywhere outside of Beijing.

In practice, many do not, as the system is slow and designed to make reporting virtually impossible.

It is a key mechanism in the government's efforts to stop a clearer picture of the mainland circulating abroad.

We complied, but registered our protest, telling the officials that our notes were actually the property of our employers. We signed a two-page confession that we had violated Chinese reporting regulations.

Memory cards in digital cameras were wiped clean. They insisted on swapping the empty cards for new ones, to make sure the pictures could not be reconstructed.

Finally, at 11.30pm, we insisted on going. "We have co-operated with you," we said. "Now let us return to Hangzhou."

They argued we should stay the night in Dongyang, and, bizarrely, go out tomorrow and "play" in the city.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, we won, and returned to Hangzhou in the early hours of Tuesday.

Our detention had been a golden cage - but a cage nonetheless.

When I first posted on the Huanxi riots I used Didi Tatlow's SCMP article as a reference. She has now followed up with what happened to her in covering the riots: she had her notes confiscated, she was arrested for several hours and even treated to dinner. She considered it a "golden cage - but a cage nonetheless". I've reproduced the full article below. Only last Thursday ACB discussed the suppression of foregin journalists in China.

Interestingly there were also protests staged by several thousand PLA retirees late last week, angry over poor pensions and social security benefits for ex-soldiers. Also Sunday's SCMP:

The number of protests in China is growing fast. Three million people took part in 58,000 demonstrations in 2003, a 15 per cent increase on the previous year, according to Outlook Weekly magazine, a Communist Party mouthpiece.

Virtually none of these was legal - the Communist Party bans virtually all public protest. Nearly all were localised disputes about official corruption, police abuse or conflict over land use, making the anti-Japan protests highly unusual and giving the impression they are officially condoned.

As I said elesewhere, forget about the China/Japan riots. This is where the real action is.

* Richard looks at the riot's aftermath and ponders if this is a storm in a teacup or the start of something bigger.
* Here's an old article declaring Huaxi "China's richest village". Bet it won't be featuring again anytime soon.
* ESWN has photos and a translation of a first hand account of the Huaxi riots, China's newest tourism hotspot.
* Lisa notes an interesting comment by Joseph Wang saying this is not the beginning of the end of the CCP: The basic understanding is that the demonstrators can demonstrate provided that they don't cross red lines such as calling for the overthrow of the Communist Party or any fundamental political change...People are pushing the limits, the government is responding. It's a slow, messy process but over time, something like civil society is developing.

posted by Simon on 04.21.05 at 07:20 AM in the China politics category.


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I have a very similar story about 3 chemical plants and a similar number of rioters etc, but my source (A Chinese journalist) gave the village name as Huankantou. They also mentioned nothing about hand to hand fighting, only the police retreating and stripping their uniforms off to try and escape.

Could you drop by my blog or send me an email with your thoughts on this.

I don't like the idea that I might have printed a false story or that my source has renamed somebody elses story.

I don't pay for information, but I don't like to think that I'm using ropey information either.

posted by: ACB on 04.13.05 at 07:17 PM [permalink]

I have a very similar story about 13 chemical plants and a similar number of rioters etc, but my source (A Chinese journalist) gave the village name as Huankantou. They also mentioned nothing about hand to hand fighting, only the police retreating and stripping their uniforms off to try and escape.

Could you drop by my blog or send me an email with your thoughts on this.

I don't like the idea that I might have printed a false story or that my source has renamed somebody elses story.

I don't pay for information, but I don't like to think that I'm using ropey information either.

posted by: ACB on 04.13.05 at 07:17 PM [permalink]

I'd read that the chemical factories in question have closed down, have you seen any references to this?

posted by: echo on 04.14.05 at 10:52 PM [permalink]


Thanks for your comment on Winds. Do you have any predictions on how the Huaxi mutiny will work out? I have none.

posted by: Marcus Cicero on 04.17.05 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

if i am correct, the location is the following nested address:

village: huankanto
town: huaxi
country: dongyang
province: zhejiang

you are all right. it is the same place.

posted by: eswn on 04.18.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Does anybody have some really good pictures of the riots in huankantou. Given other concerns, I can't walk in the with a camer without some pretty obvious risks.

posted by: ACB on 04.18.05 at 02:25 PM [permalink]

esnw has pictures of the aftermath, taken by one of the 10,000 some odd tourists

posted by: echo on 04.20.05 at 05:17 AM [permalink]

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