A group of Chinese activists and academics — including one whose son was killed in the Tiananmen Square crackdown — called Tuesday for an inquiry into the deadly police shooting of villagers protesting the seizure of land for a power plant.
Such petitions have carried little weight in the past, but China’s leaders have shown unusual concern about the latest violence in southern China, as they seek a balance between maintaining order and letting the public vent some frustrations.
The letter from the activists, posted on a Web site abroad, urged the government to publish the names of those killed in Dongzhou, a coastal village in Guangdong province northeast of Hong Kong, and to compensate their families.
The government says three people were killed when police opened fire Dec. 6; villagers put the death toll as high as 20. It was the deadliest clash yet in a series of confrontations between police and villagers angry over land seizures.
“We express our strongest protest and condemnation of the Guangdong authorities who created this murder case!” said the letter, whose 14 signatories included Ding Zilin, a retired Beijing academic whose son was killed in China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Public dissent has flourished in recent years as China’s communist government eased social controls and complaints over corruption, pollution and yawning gaps in income grew.
By the government’s count, China had more than 70,000 cases of unrest last year. The incidents have alarmed communist leaders, who are promising to spend more to raise living standards in the countryside.
“The government now finds itself with a dilemma,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a political scientist with the RAND Corp., a Washington think tank. “How to contain these sorts of things without either excessive violence or without sending the signal that people are free to protest is very, very difficult.”
Beijing’s biggest fear is that “the misuse of violence ... could cause a small protest to turn into a huge riot,” Tanner said.
Addressing crisis beforehand
The government has over the past decade tried to refine a strategy for dealing with protests. Police have been trained in crowd control, and Beijing has invested in tear gas, riot gear and other nonlethal tools.
A directive to police in the 1990s emphasized caution in the use of weapons and coercion, according to Tanner. “That puts the police in a vague situation,” he said. “It’s the sort of directive which puts tremendous levels of discretion and judgment on local security forces.”
In addition, local authorities have been warned to stay alert to grievances in order to defuse potential crises.
In a speech earlier this year, President Hu Jintao told provincial leaders to “identify antagonism of all kinds at an early stage and take effective measures in a timely manner,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
“We should handle the issues reflected by people legally and reasonably and guide people to express their interests in a reasonable way,” Hu said. “We should actively prevent and properly handle incidents on a mass scale.”
Protests can turn volatile quickly
Demonstrations in China can gather size and force with remarkable speed. Crowds congregate and mild frustration can turn into fury within minutes. Officials worry that protests about mundane issues can quickly become anti-government riots.
In June, thousands of people fought with police in an eastern town after a traffic dispute. They burned cars, smashed windows at a police station and looted a supermarket.
In another town, protesters who demanded the closure of a battery factory they said was spewing lead pollution clashed with police. Dozens of people were injured.
Dennis Blasko, a retired military officer who served in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and now researches Chinese security issues, said “many of the protesters are releasing that steam that could otherwise be pent up and blow up in a worse way at a different time.”
In Dongzhou, the government says police opened fire after they were attacked by villagers armed with knives, spears and explosives. The villagers say their demonstration was to protest insufficient compensation for their land.
Police commander arrested
At the same time, the government has tried to mollify public anger by arresting the commander of the force that opened fire and by promising to respond to local complaints.
An editorial Tuesday by Xinhua warned Chinese officials to keep the public’s interest in mind.
“Officials exercise power on behalf of people. Their deeds must be oriented toward the interests of people,” the editorial said. “If they have blind faith in absolute power and push forward unpopular policies with force and threats, they will get themselves in trouble sooner or later.”
But such warnings appear to have only limited effect in the countryside, where local officials sometimes resort to hired thugs to settle disputes.
‘There’s going to be friction’
In June, some 300 men with guns and knives attacked villagers who were protesting the seizure of land for a power station in the northern province of Hebei. Six people were killed and 48 wounded.
“China’s economy is changing but the political system is not really changing that much so there’s going to be friction,” Blasko said.
“As long as the political system does not allow for the organized expression of dissent or presenting alternate ways of doing things, there’s still going to be this problem.”