ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 6, 2005, Radio Free Asia (RFA) received a frantic call for help from a resident of Dongzhou village, near the port city of Shanwei, in the prosperous southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The caller told RFA that hundreds of paramilitary police had moved into the area and were firing at thousands of villagers. The villagers had been protesting what they claimed was inadequate compensation for land that local officials had expropriated, and upon which a power plant was being constructed. As the caller screamed into his cell phone, "They are using real bullets on us!" shots could be heard in the background. The incident is referred to by some as "mini-Tiananmen."
According to official Chinese government reports, only three people died in this incident. The government further claims that the protesters initiated the violence with homemade explosives. Eyewitnesses, however, have a different story. They tell RFA that more than a dozen villagers were killed by paramilitary police attempting to quell the disturbance and that the violent reaction of the armed police was out of all proportion to the threat posed by the demonstrators.
In the midst of an economic expansion that is the envy of the world, there is one particular growth industry in China over which the country's stability-obsessed leaders are greatly distressed: the protest industry, especially the rapidly increasing incidence of large-scale protests. A few instances from the last 15 months:
* On October 18, 2004, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, a government official's altercation with a street vendor sparked a night of violent clashes between police and an angry crowd that, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Radio Free Asia, numbered in the thousands. Paramilitary units were eventually sent in to restore order.
* Also in Sichuan province, on November 3, 2004, authorities dispatched paramilitary troops to quell a protest that lasted several days and involved more than 10,000 peasants, angry over what they viewed as inadequate compensation by the government for land to be used for a hydroelectric project.
* In August 2005, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, more than 1,000 paramilitary troops moved in on thousands of protesting villagers who had demanded the closure of a polluting battery factory that they said was responsible for the high level of lead content in their children's blood.
These "sudden incidents" or "mass incidents," in official parlance, are presenting Chinese officials with a serious problem that goes beyond the negative image of China they project to the outside world. The sheer numbers are noteworthy. In August 2005, the country's public security minister, Zhou Yongkang, announced that some 74,000 such events had taken place in 2004, an increase from 58,000 the year before. According to Zhou, 17 of the 74,000 involved more than 10,000 people, 46 involved more than 5,000 people, and 120 involved more than 1,000 participants. But many believe the actual figures are higher.
There are a host of reasons for these protests. Some involve wage and pension disputes, land requisitions leading to forced evictions, and the burgeoning pollution that has accompanied economic growth. And it has become increasingly common for rallies and other forms of collective protest to escalate into violent clashes between demonstrators and the police.
There is every indication that the government is bracing itself for further trouble. In November 2005, the Ministry of Public Security identified several threats to national security, including deepening discontent among the general public over official corruption, land expropriations, and the widening income gap. And, in a January 12 article in the Chinese Communist party's semimonthly Qiushi magazine (Seeking the Truth), the two highest ranking generals in the People's Armed Police (PAP) vowed to enhance the combat effectiveness of the one-million-strong paramilitary force so that it could deal with "sudden incidents." PAP commander Wu Shuangzhan and political commissar Sui Mingtai noted that this was necessary because these incidents had been growing in number, size, and degree of violence.
The PAP falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security. Since the military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, vast resources have been injected into the PAP for better anti-riot gear, newer weaponry, and up-to-the-minute training. As China's principal force charged with ensuring domestic security, the PAP is the Chinese leadership's "first line of defense," and its troops are the first ones mobilized in cases of serious domestic upheaval.
Beijing has demonstrated strong determination in its efforts to control protesters through the PAP. As early as May 2004, public security minister Zhou Yongkang called for a buildup and more stringent drills to improve the PAP's capacity for dealing with potentially violent large demonstrations. And on August 18, 2005, the government announced the institution of specialized riot police units in 36 cities. The first such unit was set up in Zhengzhou, capital of volatile Henan province, where on July 31, 2004, paramilitary troops quelled with tear gas and shotguns a protest by villagers over illegal land requisition.
Of even greater significance is the fact that in August 2005 the People's Liberation Army Daily warned the country's two million soldiers that they would be severely punished if they participated in demonstrations. This warning, doubtless prompted by recent demonstrations in Beijing by demobilized soldiers demanding better pensions, suggests that China's leaders are worried not only about the grievances of displaced peasants, but also about disaffection among rank-and-file members of the military.
In addition to beefing up the training and deployment of PAP forces to deal more effectively with serious disturbances when they do arise, Beijing is increasingly employing methods aimed at nipping protests in the bud. For example, in September 2005, the government announced a sweeping ban on Internet material that "incites illegal demonstrations." And on January 7, Beijing announced that local officials who fail to report unrest and other emergencies to the State Council, China's cabinet, within four hours, will be punished.
Not surprisingly, China's domestic media are reticent about reporting the increasingly frequent large-scale protests and the government's violent responses. Yet China's protesters themselves are proving resourceful. Thanks to the call it received from an eyewitness, Radio Free Asia's Mandarin service was able to break the news of the December 6 shootings in Dongzhou village--and to transmit the information back to China so that people across the country could learn the very thing that their own government was determined to conceal.
Jennifer Chou is the director of Radio Free Asia's Mandarin service.