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A contagion of conflict in China?

Adrienne Mong

Dozens of police barricaded a highway entrance ramp in Haimen, where protests broke out on Tuesday.

By Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu

HAIMEN, Guangdong Province—It wouldn’t have been fair or accurate to call it a China Spring, but for a moment it was worth wondering: Was this the beginning of a Guangdong Spring?

Since September, residents in a fishing village called Wukan, in the southern coastal province of Guangdong, had been protesting against their local government over, specifically, illegal land grabs and, more generally, corruption.  This was a town where one man had held sway as the Communist Party chief for four decades.

The situation grew explosive two weekends ago when one of the protest organizers died in police custody, triggering a widespread and cohesive revolt that saw thousands of people run the local officials and police out of town—the first time the Communist Party appeared to have lost total control of a town.

The authorities responded by laying siege on Wukan, preventing food and other supplies from reaching the 20,000-strong population, and censoring all mention of the latest developments in Chinese media or on the Internet.  In turn, the residents welcomed foreign and Hong Kong journalists to cover their plight.

Negotiations between the two sides kicked into high gear even as the situation escalated. The villagers threatened to march to the government offices of a nearby town unless their demands were met, potentially pitting them against thousands of riot and paramilitary police deployed along the main road leading in and out of Wukan.

In the end, cooler tempers prevailed amidst government compromises, but just as the Wukan standoff appeared to ease, reports of more protests nearby surfaced on Tuesday on the Internet.

Suddenly, the province in which its Communist Party head had promoted a “Happy Guangdong” campaign no longer seemed so happy.  At least not in this southeastern coastal corner.

Adrienne Mong

Residents in Haimen say the power plant built in 2009 has dramatically increased pollution and caused a rise in cancer cases.

At least three other pockets of unrest had flared up in districts of a large city near Wukan:  two of the groups were protesting similar examples of illegal land seizures and a third, the largest outbreak of demonstrations, was over government plans to build a coal-fired power plant in Haimen.

Though difficult to confirm, the initial reports described thousands of residents converging on the main local government office and organizing a sit-in on a key highway entrance to protest the development plans.  Local residents were quoted as saying they hoped foreign journalists would cover their story.

Before long, photographs emerged on Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogs showing large numbers of paramilitary police in riot gear lining up against civilians in Haimen, a large town about 70 miles away from Wukan.  Tear gas was fired and clashes ensued.  Rumors also circulated that at least two boys had been killed in the confrontations; the government denied them.

Protests are not unusual in China.  In fact, according to the most recent official statistics, 2009 saw more than 90,000 “mass incidents,” as the Chinese government calls protests, across the country.  Land grabs and pollution concerns are among the top grievances.

Although the protests in Wukan and Haimen appear unrelated, it seemed a remarkable coincidence that two demonstrations adopting similar tactics would spring up within several dozen miles of one another. 

Heavy-handed police tactics
On Thursday, the streets of Haimen looked like those of any other comparable-sized Chinese town: food stalls, shops, sleepy government buildings, a high school, and a population that relies mostly on motorbikes to get around.

Mid-morning, dozens of those motorbikes were massed near the Haimen highway entrance.  In the distance, scores of black-and blue-uniformed police wearing helmets were standing behind barricades that had been pulled across the toll gate to the highway.

A large gas station on the corner looked open, but was in fact not.  The station's attendants in bright yellow jackets were lazing around, directing traffic to the next station.  The only energy came from a discussion about the power plant taking place among some of motorbike riders.

Adrienne Mong

Dozens of police vehicles, fire engines, and water canon trucks lined the side of a highway running through Haimen.

A short excursion on the highway itself revealed a sizeable police presence.  Police vans lined up against the side, interspersed with ambulances, fire engines, and water cannon trucks.  Dozens of police in riot gear sat on the ground.  Near several other highway entrance ramps, police vehicles could be spotted behind the gates of nearby compounds.

A little over an hour later, the crowd around the main entrance ramp had grown.  Motorbikes whizzed back and forth a couple of hundred feet away from the police barricade.  Many of the riders were young.

Suddenly, a pop rang into the air and a group of young teenagers were scrambling back away from the highway barriers—a plume of smoke rose above them.  The teens had tried to sidle up along the side.  A murmur of “tear gas” arose in the crowd as people began rushing away, covering their faces.  Nostrils burned.

“They don’t have the right to treat people like this,” said a 24-year old local resident who only offered his surname, Li.  “Using tear gas?  It’s wrong.”

Rumors of cancer
A few miles away, a large power plant with two smokestacks sat under the hazy sun.  It was not in operation; local reports said the government had suspended it as well as the plans to build the second plant until further notice. 

Haimen residents called Hongdong — the hamlet of one-storey homes nearest the power plant —“Cancer Village.”  But inside Hongdong, a man working in a local medical clinic denied that cancer patients were on the rise.

Back in front of the highway entrance, a young man named Chen and his two friends on motorbikes watched the police.  They had joined in the protests on Wednesday, because they, too, were angry about the health hazards posed by the power plant.

“The ocean is polluted [because of the run-off from the plant],” said Chen, also 24 years old.  “You can’t fish in it any more.”

He and others in the crowd said the number of cancer cases in Haimen had grown since the power plant was constructed in 2009 and quoted local papers as saying 80 percent of the cancer patients at a major regional hospital came from their township.

Chen said news of the protest had spread by QQ, a popular instant messaging service, until it was blocked on Tuesday evening.  Then they relied on word of mouth.

On the following day, the protesters were demonstrating peacefully, without weapons, said Chen, but the police rushed out from behind the blockade into the crowd and began beating up people—including women. 

Many of the participants on Wednesday, according to residents, were young Chinese.  Several were injured, and countless others arrested—just as was the case on Tuesday.

They had picked the highway entrance, said Chen, because it would attract the greatest attention.  Unlike the existing power plant itself or the land where the second plant has been designated—both of which are removed from the main roads.

Hearing about Wukan
“Were you in Wukan?” was a question that crept up a few times in conversation with Haimen’s residents.  In the past couple of days, Chinese media had begun publishing reports on the dispute next door.  Moreover, many had heard through friends or acquaintances or on the Internet about the months-long confrontation in Wukan.

But no one said Wukan had inspired them to take action. 

“This [environment issue] has been a problem for us for a while,” said Li.

There appears to be another difference between Wukan and Haimen.  Local officials from Haimen have promised to come up with some sort of resolution in five days, according to Chen.  But later on Thursday evening, he said that many more young Chinese had been rounded up and detained.