Sat, Jul 30, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Villagers take local official hostage

FED UP 1,000 villagers in Inner Mongolia encircled a government office, as rural Chinese angry over requisition programs increasingly take matters into their own hands

THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING

More than 1,000 villagers in Inner Mongolia took the local Communist Party chief hostage Thursday in the latest land dispute to rock the Chinese countryside.

Amid signs of division in the government about how to handle rural unrest, the residents of Qianjin village have also driven off hundreds of armed police and blocked construction of a motorway they claim is being built through their crops and homes without adequate compensation.

"About 2,000 protesters have surrounded the local government office," a resident, who declined to give her name, told the reporters by telephone. "They are holding the general secretary and another official."

Another resident, a middle-aged man who gave his surname as Zhang, said this was the first time the village had been in conflict with the police.

"We only want our land and fairness," he said.

The villagers in one of China's poorest provinces say they had been paid only a fraction of the 9,900 yuan (US$1,200) they were promised for each of the 180 mu (about 667 square meters) of land requisitioned for the motorway.

In protest, they halted the work by occupying the building site and seizing construction equipment. Last week, they repelled more than 100 police who had been sent in to empty the site and arrest the ringleaders in a six-hour clash.

"The entire village is in a state of anarchy," Han Guowu, the district chief, told reporters. "Please trust the party and the government," he said. But such pleas are falling on deaf ears as more and more Chinese peasants take matters into their own hands.

The protest in Qianjin is at least the third since April in which locals have fought, and -- at least temporarily -- beaten public security forces.

In June, six peasants were killed in Shengyou, Hebei Province, during a battle with thugs employed by a power company to force them off their land. The government recognized the validity of their dispute, sacked the mayor and promised the villagers that they could keep their property.

Two months earlier, the residents of Huankantou, in Zhejiang Province, fought off more than 1,000 riot police during a protest over a chemical plant.

Countless other demonstrations go unreported. According to the Ta Kung-Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper funded by the government, 3.76 million people took part in 74,000 protests last year.

They are a symptom of China's growing pains as the one-party political system struggles to keep pace with a super-charged economy.

In many areas, public suspicions about official corruption have been rising along with personal expectations that are often left unfulfilled.

The government's response has been mixed. Earlier this month, vice-minister Chen Xiwen condoned the protests as a sign of growing "democratic awareness" among farmers.

In an ominous editorial yesterday, however, the People's Daily warned that any threat to stability would be crushed.

"Destabilizing factors must be resolved at the grassroots and nipped in the bud," the Communist Party organ said.

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