China’s Hidden Unrest

By Kristin Jones

Across rural China, tens of thousands are waged against land seizures and corruption. Few people ever hear about them.
Sidebar: A Camera as Witness


The word from the village of Dongzhou was growing dire last December 6. Security officers were clashing with residents over the local government’s seizure of land for a power plant. Official force, villagers said, was escalating.

“I called them every hour, and it kept getting worse. First it was tear gas, then there was shooting, then two dead, then more,” said Ding Xiao, the 23-year-old Hong Kong-based reporter who broke news of the violent crackdown for U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia. The crack of gunfire could be heard in tapes of her phone calls to residents of the village near Shanwei, in southern China’s Guangdong province. “They were asking for help. They said, ‘Please call the central government to ask for help. We have called, but there was no response.'”

Following Ding’s report, the crackdown got wide attention outside of China. But print and broadcast media on the mainland were instructed to carry only a belated official account defending the use of force against the protesters. The death toll is still unknown; the government reported that three were killed, but human rights organizations have said the actual number may be much higher. Dongzhou villagers have been under tight surveillance since December and have been warned to keep silent on threat of punishment.

This policy of enforced silence has come to define the central government’s approach to widespread rural unrest, China’s most salient domestic issue. Fearing that news of land disputes and other civil discontent could fuel a united threat to its authority, the Communist Party government has undertaken one of the biggest media crackdowns since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.

Mass incidents” is the term the Chinese government uses to describe demonstrations, riots, and group petitioning. In January 2006, the Ministry of Public Security announced that there were 87,000 such incidents in 2005, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. Protests over corruption, taxes, and environmental degradation caused by China’s breakneck economic development contributed to the rise. But some of the most highly charged disputes have occurred over government seizure of farmland for construction of the factories, power plants, shopping malls, roads, and apartment complexes that are fueling China’s boom.

In a speech published by state media in January, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao warned that local officials’ requisition of land without adequate compensation or arrangements for the livelihood of farmers was threatening social stability. “We absolutely cannot commit an historic error over land problems,” Wen said. But while putting the blame on local governments, central authorities have robbed rural residents of a way of holding officials accountable.

“News of mass incidents cannot be reported,” Li Datong said simply. The former chief editor of Bing Dian, a pioneering supplement to the Beijing-based China Youth Daily, Li has effectively been out of a job since February when he and Deputy Editor Lu Yuegang were removed from their posts following criticism by the Central Propaganda Department’s News Commentary Group, a group of retired officials that issues regular pronouncements intended to guide China’s system of self-censorship.

Li said that he, like other editors of national publications, was told by his employers not to publish anything about the December crackdown at Dongzhou. Some journalists in Guangdong province told CPJ that they received specific do-not-report orders on the land dispute long before it escalated into violence.

Censorship in China does not involve prepublication monitoring of the news, and most journalists never hear directly from the Central Propaganda Department. Instead, the system relies on the heads of each news outlet to interpret instructions and comments from local and central propaganda authorities, to spike stories that might generate criticism, or to turn news articles into “internal reports” that reach only an elite audience of high-level officials and others who have received security clearance.

Until recently, some in-depth reporting on land grabs, corruption, and other local issues could be done, ironically enough, by journalists from outside the local area. These reporters, if they moved fast enough, could file at least a few, relatively uncensored reports before local propaganda officials would be able to alert central authorities to shut down nationwide coverage.

Central authorities banned this reporting practice– known as yidi baodao, or cross-territorial reporting–last year. Reporters told CPJ that the ban, while applied unevenly, has had a profound impact. The decree has compelled editors to rein in some of their strongest investigative reporters, and has empowered local officials to harass, intimidate, and block access to journalists who were once beyond the censor’s grasp.

One journalist told CPJ that after traveling to the site of a land dispute that had erupted into violence, she argued at length with local propaganda authorities who refused her access to government officials and instructed her not to report the matter. Unfazed, she continued her reporting, sneaking through fields and past police roadblocks to interview witnesses. She filed the story only to be told by her editor that the recent ban on yidi baodao meant her work could not be published.

“I was so angry, I didn’t sleep for two days,” said the journalist, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals. She recalls pleading with her boss, “Do you know how difficult it was for me to report this?”

Technology in the hands of ordinary Chinese citizens makes suppressing news of protests more difficult. Protesters use cell phones, text messages, and digital video cameras to document events and to alert the media, which they often see as a means to communicate with central authorities. They also make news outlets a regular stop on trips to the capital to petition the central government to address grievances about local officials. But Chinese journalists told CPJ that the Internet is by far the greatest source of such information. Though the postings are quickly removed and are rarely prominently placed on blogs and the threads of Web bulletin boards, reports of land disputes and other protests can be found online for those willing to search.

Technology prevented one rural crackdown from remaining a secret. Before dawn on June 11, 2005, hundreds of men armed with pipes, hook knives, and guns descended on a makeshift encampment set up by residents of Dingzhou, in northern China’s Hebei Province, to prevent construction of a power plant. Six farmers were killed in the attack, and dozens more were seriously injured. The killed and injured had been protesting the government’s low compensation for land requisitioned for the project.

A farmer with a digital video camera captured three minutes of the attack before he was spotted, his camera smashed, and his arm broken. Villagers told a Beijing News reporter that friends of the injured farmer carried him 2 kilometers (1 mile) to safety and managed to save his videotape. It later appeared on the Web site of The Washington Post, showing a dark, medieval-looking assault by men in hard hats, ravaging the encampments with brutal force and chasing villagers across the dirt field.

The Beijing News reporter who broke the news succeeded in publishing a series of un-bylined accounts in his newspaper before the Central Propaganda Department shut down all coverage a few days later. His reports detailed the attack and the government’s response. Even more enlightening were the field notes the reporter posted anonymously online, detailing what he went through to report the story. His notes made the rounds among journalists in China, and were translated into English by Hong Kong-based blogger Roland Soong for his site EastSouthWestNorth.

In the notes, the journalist describes his efforts to convince the villagers to repeat their story, though other reporters had come and gone without publishing a word. He describes sneaking into a nearby hospital where several victims were being treated for serious injuries–and where plainclothes police harassed and interrogated him.

“At around midnight,” he wrote, according to Soong’s translation, “the articles and the photos had reached Beijing. I was happy. At that moment, I realized that my clothes were soaking wet in sweat.” He continued: “My friend asked me why I took so much trouble and risk. ‘How much money did I earn?’ I did not know how to respond. I could only tell her from my heart that I really was not thinking about how much money I would make. I only want to report this incident and let people know that such a thing happened there.” Even the limited attention paid to Dingzhou spurred central authorities to take action. Four men were sentenced to death for their role in the Dingzhou attack, and the local party secretary and two contractors received life sentences for ordering the raid.

A handful of journalists, including blogger Li Xinde, have made online reporting their full-time work. Li moves around the country with laptop in hand, writing exposés of local corruption. Officials’ threats of legal action have plagued him, but Li does not consider himself a dissident and believes that he has the protection of Chinese law.

“I’m honest, so I have nothing to fear,” he told CPJ a few hours after disembarking from an early morning train in Beijing, en route to another story in another town. “The constitution protects me.” Still, the central government has sought to limit his influence. Li’s blog is often blocked, forcing him to change Web addresses frequently. Postings on sensitive subjects disappear shortly after they’re written, so Li must depend on an audience highly motivated to read banned news.

Foreign reporters are also subject to state harassment while covering rural protests. Several of these journalists told CPJ that police interrogations and brief detentions are common, and that potential sources are warned not to talk to the media. A number of foreign reporters were roughed up while covering unrest in the southern village of Taishi last fall. And, most disturbing to many foreign journalists, their Chinese translators, assistants, and fixers are harassed and interrogated by state security agents.

Some see the imprisonment in 2004 of New York Times researcher Zhao Yan as a warning to the foreign press corps–and their local staffs– that they, too, should heed the lines of censorship set by the Chinese government.

With the traditional press tightly controlled, the job of reporting on rural protests and mass disturbances has been taken up increasingly by members of China’s emergent civil society–activists, lawyers, and intellectuals who believe strongly that the information deserves a place in the public debate, and who work outside the censorship machine.

“Farmers want to use the media, but the media can’t report their issues. Often, with the help of scholars and lawyers, the news comes out in overseas Web sites,” said Beijing-based legal scholar Li Baiguang, who has traveled the country educating farmers on their rights to pursue legal redress.

This kind of samizdat press relies heavily on the Internet, a point not lost on the central government, which issued a fresh set of Web restrictions in September 2005. Added to the list of banned content–which already included news and commentary that harmed state security or made reference to banned religious sects such as the Falun Gong–were material that “illegally incites” gatherings or demonstrations, and material distributed in the name of “illegal civil organizations.” The additions were a clear attempt to clamp down on the use of technology to organize and report on rural discontent.

The government’s harder line was evident in fall 2005, when it cracked down on activists’ efforts to aid and document a campaign by residents of Taishi–a dusty village at the ragged edges of Guangzhou, one of China’s richest cities–to oust their top elected official, Chen Jinsheng.

Villagers had initiated a peaceful signature campaign to recall Chen, whom they accused of misconduct in the sale of land to developers. Afraid that local officials would attempt to remove evidence of corruption, residents took shifts to guard the village budget office. In August, police raided the village for the first time and beat some of the residents, including an elderly woman named Feng Zhen. Villagers organized a hunger strike in protest and, by September 7, they were putting their signatures on a petition to hold a recall election.

Print and broadcast media in the southern city made a strong initial effort to cover the recall. Southern Metropolis News chronicled the campaign in a series of articles, including a two-page spread topped by a striking photograph of Feng speaking into a bullhorn. The piece appeared on September 12–the same day that hundreds of riot police used water cannons to disperse the squatters at the budget office, arrested villagers, and confiscated documents. Much of the ensuing coverage was heavily edited for ideological correctness. By mid-September, editors in Guangzhou had received orders from propaganda officials that Taishi coverage was over; henceforth only official reports would be published.

Online reports had also provided timely, if emotionally charged, information about the village campaign. Beijing-based activist Yang Maodong, under the pen name Guo Feixiong, was among several legal scholars posting regular dispatches and essays on Internet bulletin board systems such as the popular Yannan.

It was this set of activists and scholars, along with the villagers themselves, who eventually bore the brunt of the government crackdown at Taishi. On September 13, Guo disappeared. Villagers reported seeing him in a detention center, huddled under a blanket. Local authorities accused him of “sending news overseas” and “gathering crowds to disturb social order.” They force-fed him when he refused to eat. Two weeks later, authorities shut down Yannan after removing all content related to Taishi. It was clear by that time that local officials had the support of the central government. Police and young men on motorcycles roamed the village, harassing and assaulting any activist, lawyer, or journalist who turned up.

In October, newspapers in southern China carried an official version of the incidents at Taishi that blamed the recall attempt on a misunderstanding caused by a few troublemakers. “Faced with the facts,” this account read, “most villagers realized that the original reasons for the recall no longer existed and therefore told the village recall committee that they wished to withdraw the motion.”

Some Guangzhou-based journalists who covered events at Taishi remain under government surveillance, and an editor at Southern Metropolis News was sacked. The activist Guo was released from jail in December but now lives under the watch of state security agents who track his moves and his communications. He has been beaten several times by police and hired thugs, prompting dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng to organize a hunger strike in protest. Dozens of activists involved in the hunger strike have disappeared.

The Taishi demonstrations were among the mere handful of “mass incidents” to reach the public eye last year, and some journalists believe that the crackdown on coverage there signaled a turning point in the government’s attitude. To the extent that there was some latitude for the media before Taishi, it was gone by the time the People’s Armed Police shot villagers in Dongzhou last December.

And this could have a devastating effect across China’s countryside. Li, the former Bing Dian editor, said the deadly force unleashed by officials in Dongzhou would have been far less likely had the press been allowed to work freely. “If there had been public attention,” he said, “it would not have happened the way it did.”

A Camera as Witness

When documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming read online accounts of the recall campaign in Taishi, she packed up her video camera and headed to the village. Ai, who is also a gender studies professor at Zhongshan University, intended to document the role of women in village politics for use in her classes.

She found residents very willing to talk. “When there was an event, the villagers would call me and ask me to be there,” Ai said. “They thought my camera could be their testimony.”

Ai was there on September 7 to capture the extraordinary scene of Taishi villagers, many of them elderly and illiterate, gathering to put signatures or thumbprints on a petition to hold a recall election. The mood turned dark, though, in the days that followed. In an essay published in Bing Dian–just hours before government censors shut down coverage of the recall– Ai detailed a litany of arrests, beatings, threats, and acts of intimidation that impeded the campaign. She also captured the fear that settled on the village.

“At the entrance of the village,” she wrote, “there are only scattered signs of people and the lights are dim. A villager says, ‘I am afraid of the arrests, I can’t talk to you. Anyone who talks to you reporters will be arrested next time. This time you see me, but maybe next time you won’t.'”

Ai’s own video ends with a frightening scene of a young man running up to the car taking her out of the village. The screen blinks and skips to the sight of broken glass; the windows of the car have been smashed in on its passengers. Ai, who was unhurt, sent her video to central authorities, as well as to state-run China Central Television.

Her video, which has appeared on overseas Web sites, exemplifies the growing effort by China’s emerging civil society to document rural unrest outside the government’s censorship system. Yet Ai has paid a price. The Web site of her Sex/Gender Education Forum has been blocked, and Ai believes she has been blacklisted from public life–barred from appearing in the Chinese media or participating in public events.

Kristin Jones is senior research associate for CPJ’s Asia program.