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Out of the public eye, China cracks down on another protesting village

This news story was published on February 26, 2012.
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By Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers –

PANHE, China — The old woman walked over to the door and peeked out from behind a blue curtain, looking slowly from one side of the street to other. “The police will come,” she muttered to those huddled in the room behind her.

The men, who were talking about officials stealing their land in Panhe, fell quiet. They knew what a visit would mean — threats, beatings and then getting dragged off by the police.

In December, a high-profile standoff between residents and Communist Party bosses in a fishing village called Wukan, about 450 miles southwest of Panhe, ended peacefully. That case had some observers wondering if Chinese officials had changed the way they dealt with the intertwined problems of land rights and corruption.

What happened here suggests otherwise.

Earlier this month, people in Panhe marched to protest what they said was the theft by local leaders of communal lands. The complaints were met by a crackdown. Police and plainclothes security men hauled away at least 30 people. Villagers said the roundup targeted the protest organizers they’d selected to negotiate with the government.

“The officials took away all of the young people who were getting on the Internet,” said one farmer, a 50-year-old man who like many interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.

Panhe has become another in a long list of Chinese villages where locals say corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen conspired to steal land or otherwise rob the poor.

When residents stage demonstrations in hopes of gaining justice, the main leaders are often whisked away in police cars. After the government makes perfunctory promises, all goes back to the way it was before.

Wukan was different. There, with a crowd of foreign journalists on hand, Chinese officials took another course. The village chief accused of corruption was deposed. A main figure in the uprising was named the local Communist Party secretary. New elections, heralded as unusually free and open, will be held Thursday to select Wukan’s leadership.

Wukan, however, has not turned out to be a model for the rest of the nation, at least so far.

A police checkpoint now sits at the entrance of Panhe, watching closely for who comes and goes. People interviewed inside the village say officials forced residents to post online notes saying the situation was resolved. State-controlled media in the region have tried to put the matter to rest, reporting that “the villagers are emotionally stable, the whole issue is being dealt with actively.”

“What happened after the demonstrations, with the government clamping down, has been painful,” said a 45-year-old farmer named Lu, a common surname in this area. “There’s nothing we can do. Everything is being controlled. All of the information is being controlled.”

Panhe and Wukan are similar in many ways. Both are low-slung hamlets on China’s coastline where locals rose up after so much land allegedly had been stolen that they began to worry there wasn’t enough left for them to make a living.

But when the villagers of Wukan fought off a police raid and erected barricades, provincial authorities reacted unexpectedly. Instead of sending in troops to deliver a crushing blow, they negotiated an outcome that some pointed to as a possible sign of budding political evolution.

Why that didn’t happen in Panhe is a matter of conjecture, hidden by the obscurities of an authoritarian regime.

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