Riot force, police terrorize Chinese town over taxes

Occupation, arrests worsen in coverup of raid that killed two

Officials deny knowing of attack

April 25, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - A government crackdown on a village in central China has intensified in recent days with authorities arresting at least five more people and inundating the community with police in a continued effort to cover up a bloody raid last week against tax protesters, local sources said.

At least one of those arrested was taken in on suspicion of talking to the foreign media about the incident.

In the past several days, sources said, large numbers of local police and People's Armed Police - the nation's anti-riot troops - have occupied the farming village of Yuntang in Jiangxi Province. As many as three officers have been assigned to monitor individual households, they said.

In an apparent attempt to mollify victims' relatives, government officials paid more than $6,000 each in compensation to the families of Yu Xinguang, a 38-year-old driver, and Yu Xinquan, a 22-year- old butcher, who were shot to death by police April 15.

In China's impoverished countryside, $6,000 is a huge sum - the equivalent of many years' earnings for most farmers.

The two men, who are not related, died during a raid by about 600 police armed with rifles, handguns and electric clubs, residents and officials have said. At least 17 other villagers were injured.

Townspeople say they think the police attacked to make them pay an exorbitant agricultural tax, which the residents said they could not afford and had refused to pay for years.

The families of the dead men had kept their bodies to use as evidence of the attack. On Monday, though, government officials forced relatives to bury them without funerals, sources said. Officials threatened to cremate the bodies if the families refused.

Responding to foreign news accounts of the attack, the human rights group Amnesty International called yesterday for an immediate, impartial investigation as well as the release of villager Su Guosheng, whom villagers said had led the local tax rebellion and was arrested by police April 14.

Residents remained frightened and somber yesterday in the face of the police occupation, with some speaking in hushed tones or refusing to comment out of fear.

"There is nowhere to find a `Bao Qingtian,'" one desperate-sounding villager said, referring to a judge from the Song Dynasty (420-479) who became famous for punishing corrupt officials and stood as a symbol of justice.

Reports of clashes between poor farmers and police over high taxes have emerged from China's vast countryside in recent years, but the descriptions of the raid last week in Jiangxi are among the most brutal to come to light.

Villagers say police stormed the community early April 15 and began arresting residents. When some neighbors came out of their homes to help friends, police shot at their feet and legs. As the confrontation grew, police aimed at villagers' chests and continued to fire, townspeople said.

Nearly a week and a half after the outburst, officials have yet to give their account of the incident.

The State Council, China's cabinet, said it was still seeking answers to a reporter's questions submitted last week. Officials in Jiangxi continued to deny knowledge of the event yesterday. And, during a regularly scheduled news conference yesterday, the Foreign Ministry said it had no information about the incident either.

"I personally have not heard of it," spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.

Neither Xinhua, the state's official news agency, nor state-controlled newspapers have mentioned the attack. The Internet, which has emerged as an alternate source for disseminating politically sensitive news in China, has also been quiet on the topic.

The most recent round of arrests began at 4 a.m. Monday when police arrived and officials cut off phone lines for six hours. Sources said those arrested included Su Zhonglin, the son of Su Guosheng, the jailed tax rebellion leader.

Police also arrested local tax opponents Yu Zhuangsheng and Yu Xinbang, and a village woman whose name wasn't known.

On Saturday, police had arrested another villager, Yu Xinjian, reportedly because they believed he had spoken to the foreign media about the incident.

The April 15 raid came one day after the beginning of an anti-crime crackdown in Jiangxi called "Strike Hard," according to China's Legal Daily. The newspaper said that since April 17, 120 criminals in Jiangxi have confessed.

Local sources said they thought the government would portray the villagers arrested in Yuntang as members of a criminal gang and fabricate cases against them to justify the attack.

Amnesty International seemed to share the concern.

"The `Strike Hard' campaign may influence the proceedings and outcome of criminal and political trials," the organization said yesterday. "Previous anti-crime crackdowns have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people sentenced to death and a large number of suspected miscarriages of justice."

Jiangxi, a relatively poor province, has been the site of other tax-related violence. In August, more than 10,000 peasants surrounded a town hall, demanding a reduction in taxes and fees they said were consuming their earnings.

The protest spread to other towns, where farmers shattered windows of officials' homes.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji has pledged to crack down on excessive taxation and outrageous government fees, which are crippling farmers and are driven by a combination of greed by local cadres, pressure from higher officials and an inability to finance local services.

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