(Cross-posted at The Paper Tiger. From the diaries by susanbhu)

With the spotlight on anti-Japanese protests in China these past two weeks (and the UK Guardian’s Jonathan Watts gives an excellent summary and backgrounder here), far less attention has been paid to the riots that took place in Huankantou, a village in Zhejiang Province. The riots were sparked by rumors – no one is certain of the facts – that two elderly women had been killed while protesting an industrial park that had been built on land locals claimed was illegally seized from farmers.

Worse, villagers blamed the pollution from the park’s chemical plants for killing crops, contaminating the nearby river and even causing a marked increase in severe birth defects. Local officials and provincial authorities ignored the villagers’ grievances. More below …
In Jonathan Watts’ latest account:

There is a strange new sightseeing attraction in this normally sleepy corner of the Chinese countryside: smashed police cars, rows of trashed buses and dented riot helmets. They are the trophies of a battle in which peasants scored a rare and bloody victory against the Communist authorities, who face one of the most serious popular challenges to their rule in recent years.

In driving off more than 1,000 riot police at the start of the week, Huankantou village in Zhejiang province is at the crest of a wave of anarchy that has seen millions of impoverished farmers block roads and launch protests against official corruption, environmental destruction and the growing gap between urban wealth and rural poverty. China’s media have been forbidden to report on the government’s loss of control, but word is spreading quickly to nearby towns and cities. Tens of thousands of sightseers and well-wishers are flocking every day to see the village that beat the police.

But the consequences for Huankantou are far from clear. Having put more than 30 police in the hospital, five critically, the 10,000 residents should be bracing for a backlash. Instead, the mood is euphoric. Children have not been to school since Sunday’s clash. There are roadblocks outside the chemical factory that was the origin of the dispute. Late at night the streets are full of gawking tourists, marshaled around the battleground by proud locals who bellow chaotic instructions through loudspeakers.

“Aren’t these villagers brave? They are so tough it’s unbelievable,” said a taxi driver from Yiwu, the nearest city. “Everybody wants to come and see this place. We really admire them.

“We came to take a look because many people have heard of the riot,” said a fashionably dressed young woman who had come from Yiwu with friends. “This is really big news.”

Protests are more common in China than most in the West are probably aware, with land seizures and environmental degradation frequently the flashpoints. Last year, tens of thousands protested a dam project in western Sichuan. Farmers who are in danger of being evicted from their lands or who are seeing their livelihoods destroyed by pollution are fighting back with increasing frequency. Writes Watts:

Government statistics say the number of protests grew by 15% last year to 58,000, with more than 3 million people taking part. In many provincial capitals, roadblocks occur more than once a week (story here).

For a while, I’ve had the notion that an environmental movement in China might form the basis for a more democratic society. As I recall, back when the proposal for the Three Gorges Dam was presented to the National People’s Congress, an unprecedented number of delegates abstained – which was basically a “no” vote in what had always been a rubber stamp parliament. No matter how much China’s cities have developed and how strong its manufacturing base may be, peasants still form the majority of China’s population – and farmers, of all people, pay the price when the environment is sacrificed to rampant, unchecked development. Moreover, in Chinese traditional culture, there is the idea that man is a part of nature, not separate from it. With the growth of China’s middle class has come the growth of tourism, including nature pursuits like hiking, camping and mountain-climbing. Though perhaps not intimately connected to their livelihood as with the peasant population, China’s newly affluent urban dwellers have reason to go Green too…

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