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China: Dramatic Footage Shows Farmers Rioting Over Land

Dramatic amateur video footage has emerged showing deadly clashes between Chinese farmers and local security officials. The violence broke out last weekend, with six people dying and hundreds being injured. Chinese state media said residents were resisting the takeover of their property by an electricity company that wants to build a power station on their land. Disputes over land are becoming increasingly common in China as industry rapidly expands.

Prague, 16 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the village of Shengyou, 100 kilometers from Beijing, Chinese farmers armed with clubs and pitchforks on 11 June engaged in a bloody battle with security guards in camouflage gear and construction helmets.

By the end of the day, six people lay dead and more than 100 were injured, according to a report in "The Washington Post," which received video of the incident from a local farmer whose arm was broken in the fight.

Chinese state media said officials from a nearby state-owned power plant wanted to seize the land for redevelopment. The villagers responded by pitching tents on the land, digging trenches, and arming themselves.

It is an increasingly frequent occurrence in a country where the divide between rich and poor, town and country, is yawning rapidly wider.

According to official Chinese statistics, more than 3 million people staged some 58,000 protests in China in 2003. Jon Watts, Beijing correspondent for Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, told RFE/RL that it's a statistic at odds with the perception of China as a tightly controlled society.

"It shows how incredibly difficult it is to rule and control a country as big as China with a population of 1.3 billion people and a huge and growing gap between the richest and parts of the country and the poorest parts of the country," Watts said. "The Chinese government is in a fix. They have a choice of being incredibly heavy-handed and cracking down on everything, in which case the backlash could get worse, or of letting local people protest against local issues. As long as there isn't a big nationwide organized opposition, central government appears ready to give local demonstrations a bit of leeway."

The eviction of local people to make way for new industrial developments is becoming one of China's most divisive social issues.

Earlier this year, thousands of farmers overturned buses, destroyed cars, and attacked policemen during a riot in the village of Huaxi in eastern China. Reporters there described scenes of devastation. More than a hundred people were hospitalized.

In this case, the villagers blamed the local authorities for making them sell their land so that they could build a chain of chemical plants. As a consequence, they said, they were left without land and the air and water became polluted.

What's curious about many of these rural protests is the apparently moderate response of the state authorities. Watts argues that this reflects Beijing's growing frustration at its inability to control provincial officials.

"Just about everybody outside China thinks this is an incredibly authoritarian state and in some respects it is, but in another way one of the big problems of China is that the central government doesn't have enough authority over the provinces," Watts said. "The central government often enacts great laws but on the environment or health, yet when it comes to implementing these laws they're frequently ignored because local officials have a vested interest in corrupt businesses and don't carry out the laws they're supposed to."

The wave of protests in the Chinese countryside also reflects the vast and still growing divide between China's dynamic, booming towns and the poverty and inertia of its villages. By appearing to sympathize with farmers, Beijing may hope to lay the blame for their poverty on local government.

But that in itself is unlikely to overcome the farmers' deepening sense of exclusion. They see their country getting rich and don't feel part of it.