Reports of Unrest Muzzled in China

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/08/2007 11:55:00 AM
There have been many reports over the years of rural unrest in China over inadequate compensation for those who have been forced to move in order to make way for various projects. BBC News reporter Dan Griffiths narrates a rather chilling story of how he was detained when he tried to visit Shengyou, some three hours away from Beijing. In 2005, Shengyou was the site of a fatal riot over residents being forcibly removed to make way for the construction of a power plant. Though the Chinese authorities tried to keep this incident under wraps, footage is widely available on the Net. It's another reminder that behind the Olympic show China wants to put on to showcase itself, a controlling aspect still lurks in the background:

Round a bend in the road, I see two white vans. Several policemen are standing beside them. They look as out of place in rural China as I do.

The questions come thick and fast. What am I doing? Where have I come from? Who is my contact in the village?

Over the course of the next few hours they will ask me this last question again and again. From nowhere a black car pulls up and I am ushered inside.

Two years ago there was a riot in Shengyou. In the early hours of a November morning a gang of more than 100 men entered the village.

They were wearing camouflage gear and construction helmets, some armed with hunting rifles, clubs and shovels.

What happened next was filmed by a local resident and smuggled out to the international media.

The video showed a series of bloody clashes between the villagers and the attackers. Gunshots could be heard above the shouting and screaming.

When the fighting finally stopped, six people lay dead, more than 50 were injured.

With the dramatic footage circulating, the authorities moved quickly.

State media said the Shengyou residents had been resisting the takeover of their property by an electricity company which wanted to build a power plant.

It emerged that there had been a similar clash earlier in the year, which had gone unreported. Several local officials were sacked and the villagers won their claim to stay on the land.

But now the police are back in Shengyou.

I am in the backseat of the black car on the way to the nearby town of Dingzhou.

Next to me is one of the men from the checkpoint. He is not wearing a police uniform and refuses to give me his name or show me any ID.

The questions keep on coming - how do I know about Shengyou? Why was I on foot?

I tell him that my taxi driver was too scared to go near the village. He laughs. At one point he reaches over and tries to grab my mobile phone.

I ask some questions of my own - why are they detaining me? What is going on in Shengyou? He says nothing.

At the town's government headquarters, an official shakes my hand. "You are welcome to Dingzhou," he says, pretending that I am an honoured guest.

We sit around a large oval table. I am on one side, officials are on the other. Several refuse to give me their names. They want to see my journalist's identity card. And again the questions.

New regulations issued this year were supposed to give foreign journalists much greater freedom to travel around the country.

They were also supposed to mean less harassment from local officials - a common problem in the past and one that has not gone away.

I tell them I heard reports about problems in the village and had come down to look around.

People living near Shengyou say that armed police were sent into the village two weeks ago.

That was after residents dug up the bodies of those who had died in the violence in November 2005. They wanted to protest at the lack of official compensation for the families of those who were killed or injured then.

What is happening in Shengyou is not unique. It is another reminder of growing social tensions in rural China.

The government has admitted that there were tens of thousands of rural protests last year. Many are about land grabs like the one attempted in Shengyou, others about corruption or the growing gap between rich and poor.

The authorities in Beijing say they want to do something about these problems - but often officials at the local level ignore these edicts.

The interview is over. Officials say they will escort me back to the highway.

I meet up with my driver, who has been waiting for me. Three officials also get in the car. They sit either side of me on the back seat. Another in the front.

As we drive out of town a black car comes alongside. The driver says we must pull over. This game of cat and mouse continues up the highway to Beijing. Finally I tell my driver to ignore them and head home.

"Have you been to Beijing before?" I ask the officials. They laugh nervously.

Then I see blue and red flashing lights. The police will not say why they have stopped us, nor will they say when we can go. We wait at the side of the road.

Up ahead there is a big neon sign lit up in green - "One World, One Dream". It is the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics.

"Is this how you will treat journalists when China hosts the Olympics?" I ask one of them. "Oh, everything will be different then," he says.

Then another car pulls up, with representatives from the local office of China's foreign ministry. I know my colleagues in Beijing have been pressing the foreign ministry to take action.

"There has been a terrible mistake, we are so sorry." They insist that we must go out for dinner with the officials from Dingzhou, then we can go back to Beijing.

It is a strange experience sitting round the same table with the men who detained me.

It is not until the next day that my driver discovers that while we were eating, someone tampered with our car by removing several of the bolts that attach the wheels to the chassis.

It is nearly midnight by the time we arrive back in Beijing. We drive down the wide, brightly-lit boulevards, past the new office blocks.

This is the China that Beijing wants the world to see. But in Shengyou there is another China - a world that goes unreported by the country's state-run media.

China's president, Hu Jintao, has promised to build what he calls a "harmonious society", but three hours south of Beijing no-one in power seems to be listening.