On December 6, 2005, police and paramilitaries opened fire on a demonstration against the building of a power plant in Guangdong province, China, killing at least three and as many as twenty or more of the protesters. This incident brings into focus many of the questions that the international community has about this developing superpower. Although China’s economic relations with the West continue to improve, many observers remain concerned about human rights situation in China, as well as official censorship of the press. In addition, population pressures and economic expansion are creating a mounting energy crisis
In what was reportedly the most violent official crackdown on protesters in China since the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, police fired into the gathered crowd with pistols and automatic weapons. The protest that began with a confrontation on December 5 escalated in scale the following day, when protesters were seen carrying Molotov cocktails, firecrackers, fishing detonators and other homemade explosives. Shortly after 7 PM, explosives were set off by the crowd and the police opened fire, although reports differ as to whether the police or the protestors attacked first. The police reportedly pursued the rioters, both shooting and arresting the villagers. The confrontation continued the following day as the families of some of those who were shot requested the bodies for burial and were promptly arrested and taken away.
Initial reports on the incident by the New York Times, Canada’s Globe and Mail, Time Magazine and the Washington Post between December 8 and December 11 reported anywhere between six and twenty protesters killed. These articles were based primarily on second-hand reports received through Hong Kong media outlets. Locals who had fled the scene were quoted as saying that twenty to fifty villagers had been killed. This international coverage forced the Chinese government to break the media blackout it had imposed on the incident on December 6, including a ban in both print media and a restriction on the internet that went so far as to block search terms such as Guangzhou on Google and other search engines. The official report issued by the Xinhua News Agency listed only three people killed in response to an attack on police. Amnesty International confirmed the death of four as of December 12 but suspected six had been killed, with dozens more still missing. A higher death toll may prove hard to confirm based on the dozens arrested by the police and amid reports that bodies were burned at the village crossroads and thirteen more were dumped into the sea.
The protests in Dongzhou, a rural community of approximately 10,000 near the city of Shanwei, were in response to a government project to build a coal power plant in the town, in part on land reclaimed by filling in the harbor. The protests may have also targeted wind power plants projected to be built in the vicinity of Shanwei. The incident began when village leaders confronted officials over the payments to reimburse the community for the land taken for the project. The state-owned Guangdong Red Bay Generation Corporation began the construction as part of $700 million (US) project to provide electric power to the rapidly developing region. Included in the expense was the remuneration of the villagers. Sources report that the payment was either embezzled by local officials or was judged insufficient by the residents, many of whom were fishermen and would be deprived of a job by the loss of the harbor. According to the Asian Tribune, the community leaders were detained by the police on December 6, sparking an outcry from the local populace that ultimately lead to the bloody confrontation.
Reports from the official Xinahua News Agency, quoting a Shanwei government official, paint a different picture of the events. According to this source, three local trouble-makers, reportedly including one who used firecrackers to blow up a ballot box during a village election, had been stirring up trouble for months. They had been using illegal radio transmissions to encourage riots at the plant construction site and had set up a roadblock to prevent access for more than eighty days. Xinhua reported that these three individuals encouraged the rioting crowd of three hundred to attack the police with knives and homemade bombs. It was supposedly in response to these attacks that the police opened fire. The Xinhua report also stresses that the attacks were made on wind power plants in the Shanwei vicinity and makes no mention of the coal-fired plant that was under construction in Dongzhou.
Given the fact that the Xinahua report was issued only following foreign media outrage, its reporting is generally considered highly suspect. Also calling into question this highly one-sided reporting of events is the fact that the Beijing government has arrested a policeman in the aftermath of the massacre, doubtless in the quest for a scapegoat. Furthermore, there are reports that the local government offered as much as $15,000 to the families of the deceased if they agreed to state that their relatives had been killed by their own explosives, rather than by bullets. Finally, the Chinese news media is considered highly questionable in general, and it and the Chinese government has faced recent criticism concerning its censorship of reporting on SARS and industrial pollution of a river in Heilongjian province among other topics. Nevertheless, reporting from outside news outlets must also be taken with a grain of salt, given its reliance on second-hand sources for most of its facts.
Changing Face of Mass Action in China
The subtext to the massacre in Guangdong is the increasing frequency of local protests of this sort. Although previous protests have not met with this level of violence in the government crackdowns, they have nevertheless been similarly motivated and suppressed. Unlike the protests at Tiananmen Square, which were largely pro-democracy in nature, recent protests have centered primarily on government seizure of land. In 2004 alone, China faced more than 74,000 mass incidents involving 3.7 million people. Most of these were focused on non-payment of remuneration or environmental concerns raised by government projects.
With a population of 1.3 billion and a rapidly expanding economy, China has needed to invest in expanding its public works infrastructure. Powering the expansion of cities is essentially a concern. To meet this concern, as well as worries about Chinese dependence on coal and other fossil fuels, China has undertaken to build a series of new power plants. Part of the focus of these new power plants is providing a more environmentally-sound source of electricity, although the first and foremost concern remains volume. These projects have culminated in the centerpiece Three Gorges Dam which is supposed to supply power to much of central China, but also include an increasing number of wind-farms as well as new coal power plants.
For the construction of these projects, both Beijing and local governments have made free and frequent use of the fact that all land is officially government-owned. As part of these seizures of land, the farmers and other villagers are generally paid. However, these payments are often lost in the morass of Communist bureaucracy or are insufficient to make up for the loss of a job and a way of life. In addition, many of these projects are often short-sighted get rich quick schemes perpetrated by local cadres. These frequently cause long-term environmental damage, often resulting in long-term financial losses as well, and almost invariably redistribute income from poor farmers to rich plutocrats in an ironic reversal of Chinese Communist Party doctrine and former practices.
Unsurprisingly, these projects frequently result in protests from locals. These protests are sometimes in response to genuine abuses and sometimes the reactionary tendencies of country bumpkins who are afraid of progress and unsure of how to proceed. These protest generally are ignored and occasionally result in arrests of “troublemakers” or rioters. Thus far, it has been uncommon for violence on the level of the Guangdong protests, but this is perhaps a sign of things to come.
Hannah Beech, “Gunfire in Guangdong,” Time Asia Magazine, Sunday, December 11, 2005. Online at: http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/0,13673,501051219-1139861,00.html
John Chan, “Chinese police massacre protestors in Guangdong,” Asian Tribune, 2005-12-16. Online at: http://www.asiantribune.com/show_article.php?id=2909.
Howard W. French, “Beijing Casts Net of Silence Over Protest,” The New York Times, December 14, 2005. Online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/14/international/asia/14china.html.
Howard W. French, "Chinese Pressing to Keep Chinese Silent on Clash," The New York Times, December 17, 2005. Online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/17/international/asia/17china.html?adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1134985098-34IMcEmN0CTJ5Wq/M66ArA
Jiang Zhuqing, “3 villagers killed during riot at power plant,” China Daily, 2005-12-19. Online at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-12/19/content_504433.htm.
“Government breaks silence on Guangdong power plant protests,” Interfax China, Shanghai, December 12, 2005. Online at: http://www.interfax.cn/showfeature.asp?aid=8278&slug=PROTEST.