Fatal raid on village was botched arrest, Chinese officials say

Local officials' mistakes contributed to bloodshed, China's government says

April 26, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Ten days after an explosion of violence in a small village left two peasants dead and at least 17 injured, the Chinese government finally broke its silence on the incident yesterday and suggested that it was simply a criminal arrest gone horribly wrong.

At the same time, the government appeared to acknowledge that mistakes by local officials had contributed to the bloodletting, which villagers have described as a military-style assault to force them to pay exorbitant taxes they cannot afford.

In a terse, ambiguous statement, the State Council, China's Cabinet, gave this account:

Police and officials in Central China's Jiangxi Province went to Yuntang on April 15 to arrest suspected criminals. Some in the village instigated residents - who misunderstood why police had come - to battle them. In the melee, two villagers were killed and 23 officers and 20 residents injured.

Police later arrested two criminal suspects. Two officials responsible for the incident have been suspended and are under investigation, the statement said. Pressed for details, a government spokeswoman said she had no further information.

The State Council's version of events is considerably at odds with those of villagers who described a dawn raid by about 600 local and riot police variously dressed in helmets, camouflage and body armor, and carrying rifles, pistols, electric batons or wooden boards.

When police tried to arrest residents, neighbors came out of their homes to see what was going on or to help fellow villagers. Police began shooting at their feet and legs. One peasant, 22-year-old butcher Yu Xinquan, was shot through the heart as he opened the iron gate to his courtyard home, villagers said.

"They opened fire the moment they came in!" said one villager yesterday after listening to the State Council's version read to him over the telephone. "They shot people the moment they came in!"

The villager, who asked not to be named, said officers should have used a megaphone and explained their purpose instead of marching into town and firing away. He contrasted the dawn raid April 15 to the officers' return on Monday, when they arrested four villagers.

Police entered town Monday, announced over a loudspeaker that they would not harm residents and told people not to be frightened, the villager said. Among those arrested was Su Zhonglin, the son of Su Guosheng, who led the village tax rebellion before he was arrested April 14.

While the State Council described the raid as a criminal matter, residents have insisted from the beginning that it was the culmination of a long-standing dispute over taxes that threatened to decimate their paltry earnings.

Villagers have refused to pay an agricultural tax for the past three years that amounts to $36 for each fifth of an acre they farm. Families generally receive one-fifth of an acre per person. After taxes, fertilizer and irrigation fees, households would have earned no more than $22 a year for each plot of land.

A second villager said yesterday that the government had pressed residents to fund efforts to terrace fields in 1998 - the same year that flooding from the Yangtze River inundated their land. Local farmers resisted. It was unclear whether the funds for terracing fields and the agricultural tax were related or one and the same.

This month's confrontation was not the first in Yuntang. When police went to the village in 1999 to force farmers to pay taxes, more than 600 residents formed a human wall at the entrance to keep them out, local people said.

After hearing the State Council's version read over the phone yesterday, a third villager was incredulous at the claim that last week's violence arose out of a criminal matter.

"Su Guosheng is not a criminal!" the villager blurted out, referring to the jailed anti-tax leader. "I feel so frightened when I say this though."

Since last week, police and government officials have occupied the village in an attempt to prevent news of the violence from leaking out. On Saturday, police arrested a villager named Yu Xinjian, who was being held on suspicion of talking to foreign news media, according to a source.

In the past couple of years, news of violent clashes between peasants and police over exorbitant taxes and fees has filtered out of the Chinese countryside with increasing frequency. The problem appears to be driven in part by greedy local cadres, pressure from higher officials for more revenue and an inability to finance local services.

China's state-controlled press has remained mute on the Yuntang incident, which is one of the most brutal and detailed of its kind to come to light.

Residents are angry that the domestic news media have ignored their plight. They have also expressed fear that the government might try to portray them as thugs in order to explain away the incident.

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