By
NBC News
updated 12/20/2005 3:31:34 PM ET 2005-12-20T20:31:34

More conflicting details have emerged from last Tuesday’s uprising in a small fishing village in Guangdong province on the China coast near Hong Kong.

Chinese paramilitary police opened fire on crowds of demonstrators protesting the construction of a new power plant. Villagers say as many as 20 people are dead in Dongzhou.

Amnesty International said it was the first time Chinese police had fired on protesters since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

China’s official state-run news agency, however, says only three villagers were killed and eight wounded and that the shootings were a “mistake.”

The New China News Agency claims police used deadly force only after “a few instigators” threatened them with spears and explosive detonators used the catch fish.

The trouble has been simmering for months. Last summer, protestors blocked roads leading to the power plant, demanding fair compensation for the land the government seized and for the fishing habitat villagers say has been ruined.

Threats from villagers
Villagers say authorities in Dongzhou arrested several residents who went to complain about the power plant. Soon, a mob gathered to protest the arrest. The Xinhua News Agency says police dispersed the crowd with tear gas, but then the protestors formed a blockage and another standoff began.

"(One of the villagers) shouted through a loudspeaker that they would throw detonators at the police and blow up the wind power plant if the police refused to retreat," Xinhua said.

"It became dark when the chaotic mob began to throw explosives at the police. Police were forced to open fire in alarm. In the chaos, three villagers died, eight were injured."

The Guangzhou Daily newspaper described the killings as a mistake and said the Guangdong official who had ordered police to open fire had been detained. It did not identify the official.

"The commanders at the spot did not handle the incident properly and the resulting deaths and injuries are a mistake," it said.

"I didn't expect the police to shoot,” one young villager said. "But they shot my uncle twice. I watched him die."

Crackdown
Among the dead was a 26-year-old man from Shanghai who was visiting Dongzhou to attend a wedding. A relative says he stepped outside to see what was happening and was hit by police bullets.

"They used tear gas," one wounded man said from his hospital bed. "Then they started firing" as many as 200 bullets.

The harsh crackdown on citizens is shocking to those hoping to see reform in China.

"China is telling the world, 'We are still very backward in terms of human rights,’" says Lee Cheuk Yan, vice chairman of Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic China.

“I don’t think this is good image for China when they are trying to tell the world that they are part of international community and they will play by international rule.. but only economic – not political. I don’t think this is a very good message,” Lee says.

China has never apologized for the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when hundreds —perhaps thousands — of Chinese were gunned down by the army in a student-lead uprising for democracy.

There have been smaller rebellions in China since then, but experts say they have not been as much about democracy as for labor, land and farm disputes.

“But these livelihood issues are really turning people out because cause they have nowhere to turn to,” says Lee, who is also a Hong Kong legislator. “They have no freedom of the press so they cannot turn to the press, they have no democracy so they cannot turn to their elected representative. They have no where to turn to and the only thing they can do is just street power and that’s all.”

The timing and location make this week's crackdown all the more embarrassing for China. The shooting scene is just 120 miles from Hong Kong, where thousands of delegates are now gathering for Tuesday’s start of the World Trade Organization meeting.

“And when the world is gathering in Hong Kong for WTO, people naturally are watching what is happening inside China,” Lee says. “And so China is now showing the world their brutal faces; that they can go to the extent of killing their own people just on very simple, ordinary livelihood issues. They are asking only for compensation and they get bullet instead. ‘How can this happen in China,’ people will ask.”

Charles Hadlock is currently on assignment in China. Reuters contributed to this report.

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