BEIJING – Chinese intellectuals have demanded an inquiry after police shot and killed protesters in a south China village, comparing the violence to the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989.
In an open letter posted on the Internet, more than 50 scholars and intellectuals called on authorities to publish the names of the dead, offer compensation to their families and punish those involved after an independent investigation.
“We strongly protest the Chinese government's failure to publicly explain, clarify and investigate the killings. We protest against its gross action to forbid domestic media from reporting on the case,” the letter said.
China has confirmed police shot dead three people a week ago during protests in the Guangdong village of Dongzhoukeng about compensation for land appropriated to build a power plant.
The government said the official who ordered the shooting had been detained, but residents said they were not satisfied.
“It's just a rumour. Who knows? They can say whatever they want to say to appease the villagers,” said one surnamed Chen.
He said tension was high as authorities detained several people for their involvement. Local television in nearby Shanwei city reported on Monday that nine people involved in the protests had been arrested, he said, and police were detaining more.
Chen said villagers in Dongzhoukeng, in a poor, coastal area dotted with temples and ancestral shrines and dependent on farming and fishing, were now free to come and go, except for the protest leaders.
It was unclear whether the leaders, whom he referred to as the “villagers' representatives”, were among those arrested.
China's Communist Party has a monopoly on power and prizes stability, but the Dongzhoukeng protests were the latest in a series of clashes over land rights as rapid development swallows up farmland and compensation is siphoned off by corruption.
The open letter said what it called China's “social crisis” would continue unless such grassroots complaints were handled properly and the country became more open.
“If there isn't a democratic and free constitutional system, an open political space and open expression of appeals of different interests, it is impossible for China to resolve these social conflicts peacefully,” it said.
The death toll in the clashes remains unclear, but rights groups say it could be the highest involving security forces since the crackdown on Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators.
Villagers said anywhere between two and 20 had been killed, more were still missing and families did not dare approach police to request the bodies for fear of being detained.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang rejected the comparison with Tiananmen, although he said he had no information on how many died in Dongzhoukeng.
“In the 1989 incidents, we already have a conclusion. As for this incident, I don't have any information. You should find out whether at base these issues and those of the 1989 incident are of the same nature,” Qin told a regular news conference.
On Monday, a Shanwei government official defended the police, saying they fired in self-defence after the villagers attacked them with pipe bombs.
Analysts say the level of violence indicates security forces are ill-trained to handle the growing number of protests and are often not given clear orders about when or how much force to use to quell disturbances.
Chen, the Dongzhoukeng resident, said government officials had come to the village since the shootings “but nobody dares to speak too much or they will get arrested”.