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A Chinese city’s rage at the rich and powerful

The beating of a student in the Chinese city of Chizhou sparked a riot, which evolved over eight chaotic hours into an expression of rage against the Chinese Communist Party's new fascination with businessmen, profits and economic growth.
- CHINA OUT - Chinese riot police try to
Police work to hold back thousands of rioters on the streets of the eastern Chinese city of Chizhou on June 26.AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Liu Liang, a slightly built computer student with big glasses, was home in Chizhou for summer vacation. At about 2:30 on the hot afternoon of June 26, he was pedaling his bicycle by the downtown vegetable market on Cuibai Street.

Driving down the same street in his new-looking black Toyota sedan was Wu Junxing, deputy manager of a hospital in nearby Anqing. Wu, accompanied by a friend and two bodyguards, had come to Chizhou that day to attend opening ceremonies of a new private hospital and, associates said, survey the market to judge whether he should invest in his own facility.

Liu's bicycle and Wu's shiny four-door sedan collided, sending Liu crashing to the ground. Almost immediately, witnesses said, Liu, 22, and Wu, 34, began arguing over who was at fault. In the heat of the dispute, they said, Liu damaged one of Wu's side-view mirrors, prompting Wu's muscular bodyguards to burst from the car and beat the skinny young man senseless, leaving him bleeding from his mouth and ears.

The beating, part of a minor traffic incident on a slow Sunday afternoon, ignited a spark of anger. The spark became a riot, evolving over eight chaotic hours into an expression of rage against the Chinese Communist Party's new fascination with businessmen, profits and economic growth.

After they saw what happened to Liu, Chizhou's self-described "common people" rose up against what they perceived as their local government's willingness to side with rich outside investors against Chizhou's own. By the end of the evening, 10,000 Chizhou residents had filled the streets, some of whom torched police cars, pelted overwhelmed anti-riot troops with stones and looted a nearby supermarket bare.

The violence in downtown Chizhou startled the leaders of this forward-looking city of 120,000, set in the rich alluvial farmland of Anhui province near the Yangtze River, about 250 miles southwest of Shanghai. Dismayed city officials deplored the impact on their campaign to attract investment and broaden Chizhou's economic base. "Illicit elements" were to blame, they said.

But the riot here, like a growing number of flare-ups in other Chinese cities, was in fact directed against the flourishing alliance of Communist Party officials and well-connected businessmen that runs Chizhou and many other cities across China. Before calm returned to the streets, the disturbance had become a political rebellion against the increasingly intimate connection in modern China between big money and Communist government.

"When anger boils up in your heart so long, it has to burst," said a Chizhou man who was part of the crowd that night.

As the Communist Party strives to continue the swift economic growth that has become its new ideology, the official partnership with private business has generated resentment among those left behind: farmers whose fields become industrial parks, workers whose socialist-era factories go under, youths with assembly-line jobs at $60 a month.

In their eyes, the party that assumed power in China 56 years ago as a champion of peasants and workers seems to have switched sides, backing capitalist businessmen instead of the poor as part of a new get-rich ethic in which bribery plays a big role.

Recently, the resentment has exploded into violent protests, despite draconian laws against attempts to challenge the party's rule. Although press censorship prevents an independent count, the government-funded Ta Kung Pao newspaper said Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang estimated that 3.76 million Chinese were involved in 74,000 "mass incidents" during 2004.

Preventing the unrest from spreading has become a major preoccupation of President Hu Jintao and his lieutenants, who regularly call for stability as a condition for further economic progress. The stakes, they know, are high. If the violent outbursts get out of control, they could undermine China's boom and, ultimately, the party's grip on power.

A rich outsider
Wu and his companions had just finished a long, beer-soaked lunch at a sidewalk restaurant when the collision with Liu occurred, according to Cao Yefa, an official at the Chizhou Communist Party Propaganda Department.

Wu's two bodyguards were security personnel from Xie He Hospital in Anqing. As described by witnesses, both wore their hair in military-style brush-cuts and their black T-shirts exposed muscular arms decorated with tattoos.

As Liu fell to the street, the two guards continued kicking him with pointed-toe shoes, the witnesses related. Three dozen shopkeepers from the nearby vegetable market and idle motorcycle taxi drivers gathered around and shouted at the pair to stop.

Wu's Toyota, they pointed out later, carried license plates identifying it as registered in neighboring Jiangsu province. Wu, it seemed, was one of the rich outsiders Chizhou's investment-hungry leaders were eager to seduce. Moreover, when policemen from the nearby substation showed up to investigate, officials and witnesses reported, Wu and his bodyguards refused to cooperate -- the first signs of an arrogance that participants said helped spark the violence.

Wu, still in his vehicle, waved off questions impatiently, witnesses recalled, saying: "Don't touch me. Get away from my car."

The policemen, two duty officers and an auxiliary, put the badly beaten Liu into a taxi and dispatched him to Chizhou People's Hospital, where doctors later said he had a broken jaw, a broken nose and multiple contusions. According to witnesses and official accounts, the policemen ordered Wu and his three companions to follow them to their substation: about 330 yards down Cuibai Street, a right turn at the Donghuadong Supermarket and 54 yards down Quipu Street.

Agitated by Wu's attitude and the sight of Liu's bloody injuries, the motorcycle drivers and vegetable merchants followed on foot, joined by a growing number of bystanders. Members of the crowd pulled out their cell phones to call friends and relatives, swelling their numbers further. By 3:30, witnesses recalled, several thousand people were gathered around the station.

One of those who showed up was Liu's father, who, witnesses said, began arguing with Wu and the bodyguards. Enraged, he grabbed a motorcycle lock and, swinging it over and over, shattered Wu's windshield, the witnesses reported. Police officers, who numbered only three, did not react.

The hostile mood swiftly escalated, those present said. The anger was nurtured by rumors, passed along in person or in cell phone conversations that, in the absence of official declarations, were the only source of information.

Many were told that Liu was a 16-year-old student on his way home from final exams, and that he had died of his wounds before reaching the hospital. Others were told the two bodyguards had stabbed a motorcycle driver who was trying to protect the injured youth. And most were told that Wu was heard telling police there was nothing to worry about because, by handing $35,000 to Liu's father, he could make the problem go away.

The actions of Wu and his companions further enraged the crowd, witnesses said. Cao, the party propaganda official, said the four men openly defied the three policemen and, within earshot of the crowd, cursed them in accents that identified them as outsiders.

"Maybe it's because they are rich people, rich but without education," Cao said in a telephone interview. "They don't know how to behave, and they look down on others."

'How dare they?'
Members of the crowd, which was still growing as the confrontation continued, demanded that the three police officers turn Wu and his companions over to them, according to several people present at the time. Instead, the four men were taken inside the station. But the two bodyguards returned to the car and took out long knives, presumably to protect themselves, according to witnesses and official accounts.

"These guys tried to kill one of our sons," people in the mob shouted, according to those present. "How dare they? Let's get them."

The outnumbered police officers persuaded the two toughs to give up their knives and bundled them into a police van to be transported to the central jail. But in a gesture that further outraged the crowd, they were not handcuffed. To many of those standing in the street, the two were being taken away for their safety, not for punishment.

"Why are you letting them go?" people shouted, according to accounts from several witnesses. A motorcycle driver who was in the crowd was still outraged about the lack of handcuffs a week later. "That's illegal," he shouted in a long conversation during which he described the scene. "Why didn't the police handcuff them?" he asked. "They were so rich, so they weren't afraid of anything."

Wu, meanwhile, was seen looking at the crowd from a second-floor window above the police station, smiling dismissively. "When I saw him smirk at the crowd, I was really mad," said the driver, a sinewy man wearing only shorts and a tank-style undershirt.

Anger boiling, the crowd blocked the police van, still demanding to get its hands on the two bodyguards. About 50 anti-riot police showed up wearing helmets and camouflage fatigues, witnesses said. They were met by a volley of stones and bottles from a mob that now numbered around 10,000. The anti-riot forces hustled the bodyguards to safety, the witnesses said, but the unarmed officers did not have the numbers to bring the situation under control.

Four were seriously injured and the rest swiftly drew back, authorities said. The injured, officials said, were hospitalized for more than a week. "They were afraid of dying," said one member of the crowd who, like others interviewed, refused to reveal his name for fear of being arrested.

By 5 p.m., the emboldened mob turned its attention to Wu's sedan, overturning it, pummeling it with rocks and then setting it afire with cigarette lighters, the witnesses said. Two police cars suffered the same fate an hour later, they added, and the police van was also trashed and set ablaze. The fires were so hot they scorched the entrance to the police station, Cao said.

The crowd cheered and shouted at the sight of government vehicles burning. Several of the people there that evening said that the riot had become a battle against a system that encouraged local police to protect rich outsiders instead of sticking up for a local boy. A number of those present, interviewed at length, referred to the crowd as "the common people," a term frequently used in China to distinguish ordinary civilians from the rich or the powerful.

"They are rich people, and they always bully us poor people," said one of the legions of men who ferry customers around Chizhou on the back of motorcycles and who played a prominent role in the violence.

Supermarket ransacked
About that time, one of the rich and powerful got a fateful telephone call. Zhou Qingrao, who owns the Donghuadong Supermarket, said police inside the besieged station phoned to ask for some water. Zhou immediately walked over a six-pack of mineral water in what, for him, was a natural gesture of solidarity. The gesture made him the next target.

Zhou, a Communist Party stalwart and a former delegate to the People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, also heads the Chizhou Investors Association; his company owns Donghuadong and four other Kmart-type stores in the region. Originally from Hangzhou, 150 miles to the east, Zhou since arriving here 20 years ago had become a prominent part of the party-business establishment that the angry people in the street were out to attack.

"I heard somebody screaming, 'The owner of Donghuadong Supermarket is from Zhejiang province. Let's get rid of it,' " he recalled in a telephone interview. "I yelled to them, 'You cannot do that. I have been here more than 20 years. I have made a lot of contributions to Chizhou.' But they wouldn't listen to me."

Instead, after a sudden cloudburst let up, they attacked. Shouting in unison, "One, two, three," using crowbars and hard-toed shoes, Zhou recalled, they smashed down the glass door and poured in.

For more than three hours that sultry evening, the looters helped themselves. They carried away bottles of rice wine and beer. They scooped up handfuls of silver earrings and gold necklaces. They hauled away microwave ovens and, according to witnesses, fled into the darkness with blankets, makeup, perfume, soap and even pots and pans.

"Pretty soon everything was gone," said a motorcycle taxi driver who was in the crowd.

Only after 11 p.m., when 700 more riot police showed up from the Anhui provincial capital, Hefei, did the looting end. By then the first floor was a shambles, emptied of its wares.

Since then, police have made a dozen arrests, authorities said, including three people accused in connection with the beating of Liu, who was hospitalized for two weeks. Police made several videos of the riot, according to witnesses and official accounts. Motorcycle drivers said more than 30 people have been called in to account for actions captured on the tapes.

The city's new Communist Party secretary, Tong Huawei, who by coincidence took over the day after the riot, called in investors July 7 and assured them that, despite the violence, he guaranteed a good environment for business. "You can count on us," he said, according to Zhou, who was present at the meeting.

Tong and the Chizhou mayor, Xie Dexin, reiterated their support for private investors the next day at a ceremony marking Donghuadong's reopening after repairs and restocking. Investors are always encouraged to invest in Chizhou, they said, according to an account of their speeches in the official newspaper, and this city will always be a great place for business.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.