Thursday, January 19, 2006

1984 Chinese Style

Via the NYTs:
By day this small village in the midst of China's industrial heartland seems to be a picture of normalcy: children play in their yards, workers in uniform sweep the tidy streets and a red flag flutters proudly above an elementary school with a facade bearing a poster of the hero of Chinese economic reform, Deng Xiaoping.

But as evening approaches the streets fall eerily quiet, and if you look carefully at the cars that drive by every few minutes you see that they are filled with police officers, both uniformed and, unmistakably, plainclothes. Track down a resident, if you can find one, and that impression is confirmed.

"You'd better be gone before dark," one man told a stranger. "Pretty soon the police will be everywhere, and no one will dare go outside."

In an immediate sense this community, not long ago pure farmland and now the paved-over scene of runaway industrial sprawl, has experienced an extraordinary trauma in the last week. Villagers say two residents were killed, including a 13year-old girl, amid the muscular suppression of a local demonstration by policemen using electrified truncheons that resemble cattle prods.

Seen in another light, though, one that must be deeply worrying for the country's authorities, Panlong is anytown China, merely the latest example of protests and riots spreading through the countryside against injustices inflicted on those left behind by China's economic takeoff.

Just as the protests are becoming more and more common, so is the use of overwhelming force to put them down. A major threshold was crossed early last month in the village of Dongzhou, about two hours from here by car, where residents estimate that as many as 30 people were killed by paramilitary security forces that fired on demonstrators.
This should be a reminder to everyone that when government is not democratic, or loses its accountability, it is the most malevolent of human constructions. Yet, these Chinese peasants are fighting back as free men against their repression.
When a spark ignites the people's discontent, there are police state tactics to suppress the protests and enforce a silence over the details. Ultimately there are brass knuckles, jail and, lately, death for those who refuse to take the hint and desist.

"People here have tried everything you can think of to get the problem solved before this happened," said a resident who gave his name as Chen. "They talked to the village committee, the township and municipal governments. One of them even went to Beijing. But nothing is done - the village officials just simply ignore them."

Mr. Chen described the peak of the protests, on Saturday night, when the deaths occurred. "It was like a war, so real and so brutal," he said. "I did not see who started it, but I saw policemen were beating the villagers and the villagers were fighting back with stones and firecrackers."

Since then, villagers said, many residents are being forced to report each morning to the police, who detain them until late in the evening, when they are allowed to return home until the next morning.

As with so many recent rural protests, Panlong's problems began with land. Many villagers told stories of having been deceived by corrupt local officials who they said had enriched themselves by selling off rights to the villagers' farmland.
For their sake and for our own, let us hope the lowest of the low can tip China toward openess and away from an authoritarian nationalism that one day could be the greatest threat to the U.S. and world security. They are history's latest conscripts in the advance of liberty. The smell of gunpowder from their firecrackers is the fagrance of freedom. May their fight continue. May they win for all of us.