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Violence works where peace failed for China villages

January 28, 2006

By Lindsay Beck

HUASHUI, China (Reuters) – For years, the villagers of
Huashui gave peace a chance but in the end it was violence that
won results.

After chemical plants set up shop in a nearby industrial
park, residents of this farming town in China’s wealthy coastal
province of Zhejiang pressed authorities to shut them down,
complaining that waste was polluting their crops and river.

Using China’s centuries-old method of petitioning, they
took complaints first to local authorities, then to city
officials, and finally all the way to the central government,
more than 1,000 km (600 miles) away in Beijing.

“None of it achieved any results,” said one resident, who
asked not to be named.

For five years, frustration built. Then, as the villagers
in Huashui, near the Zhejiang city of Dongyang, moved to block
the road leading to the plant, their frustration exploded.

“Ordinary people don’t have any other way. It was only by
not letting the workers in that we could stop the factory from
producing,” said the resident.

She gestures at the landscape where plants making
everything from chemicals to zippers are encroaching on what
was once some of China’s most fertile farmland.

The blockade escalated into a full-scale riot involving as
many as 30,000 people. Thousands of police had to be called in
from neighboring towns to put it down.

Yet, after years of fruitless petitioning, the riot worked.

The chemical factories have been shut down.

BUBBLING ANGER

A couple of hours drive away in Xinchang, where villagers
lived for years with waste from a pharmaceuticals plant,
residents have a similar tale.

An explosion at the plant last June brought longstanding
grievances to the surface, and when a meeting with the factory
head was postponed, the anger bubbled over.

More than 10,000 villagers stormed the plant, throwing
stones and attacking police lines.

Again, the results were swift.

Production at the Jingxin Pharmaceutical Company was
halted.

“The problems have all been resolved. People are drinking
safe water now,” said an official who oversees the village of
Huangniqiao, whose fields and river border the plant.

China’s Communist leadership places a premium on
maintaining stability as it tries to steer forward rapid
economic and social change without loosening its grip on
political power.

But analysts say local officials’ wariness of any input
from below is exacerbating social conflicts and leading to the
very unrest the government is trying to avoid.

“If ordinary people in China don’t make trouble, nothing is
resolved,” said Lang Youxing, a political scientist at Zhejiang
University, in the provincial capital, Hangzhou.

“But if everyone thinks problems can only be resolved with
violence, that’s a very dangerous situation,” he said.

SCAPEGOATS

The resolution of the two protests sends a mixed signal to
residents.

Closing the factories implies that the government agrees
they were right all along. And in the Dongyang case, the city’s
party secretary and its former mayor were also sacked,
reinforcing the message that higher authorities sided with the
people.

But in that case four residents also received jail terms
for their role in the riots.

Wei Rujiu, the Beijing-based lawyer who agreed to defend
the villagers when they could find no one else to represent
them, says the underlying problem was that they had no means
for redress.

“Will there be more problems because channels for redress
are closed?” asked Wei. “That is the case now and it will be
that way in the future.”

Lang, the professor, says that for things to improve, local
leaders will have to shake off their wariness of hearing
complaints.

In the eyes of officials, he said, “the fewer petitions the
better and it’s best to have none.”

Many officials are loath to receive complaints because they
are paralyzed by their lack of capacity to respond, he says.

The Huashui residents are still upset over not receiving
compensation, for example, but local government may have
neither the means nor the authority to pay out the sums
demanded.

Still, unless they can better accommodate their
constituents’ desires, pressures are likely to continue to
build into the violent outbursts the government is so bent on
avoiding.

Asked if she had regrets over the protests, one Huashui
residents whose relative is among those jailed, said that
looking back she could see no other way.

“We were helpless. We had no alternative,” she said. “And
we were angry. Of course we’re angry.”

(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng)


Source: reuters



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