Chinese Police Clamp Down On Protesters After Worker's Death

Hundreds of police were deployed in southern Beijing Wednesday to quell a large protest after a migrant worker fell to her death at a clothing mall. Police say it was suicide, but there are reports the woman was gang-raped by security guards. Her family is asking for a proper investigation.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Chinese security forces are patrolling the streets of southern Beijing today in great numbers, apparently to try and send a message to protesters. This follows a large demonstration yesterday at a shopping mall in the southern part of the capital, where protesters accused police of mishandling an investigation into the death of a 22-year-old migrant woman who worked there. It is just the latest example of mass unrest in China, and with each incident, police presence seems to be growing.

NPR's Louisa Lim joins us now from the Beijing, where she's been tracking developments. Louisa, good morning.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So how big was this protest yesterday, and why such a large police response to it?

LIM: Well, it's difficult to know exactly how big it was. But from the photographs, we can see hundreds, maybe a thousand or so people gathered in front of this market, where this migrant worker called Yuan Liya worked. And it dates back to what happened on Friday, when she fell to her death from the building.

Police say that they've done an investigation, and she committed suicide. But friends and relatives don't believe it. They say she's not the kind of person who would. And there are all these rumors going around the market saying that she was gang raped, and she leapt to escape her attackers.

I mean, I think the real crux of the issue is that this huge mistrust in the police, people believe they're covering something up, and there were really no outlets to express discontent, apart from going out to the protest. So we're seeing these really extraordinary measures to intimidate potential protesters.

And today, I spent the morning in that market, and there were police every few yards, and we passed 20 buses, each of them carrying 50 policemen, just sitting there in case trouble might break out. So that sends a very intimidating message to protesters.

GREENE: We've talked about protest and crackdowns before. Are you seeing something different here with his police reaction?

LIM: Well, I mean, I think we're just seeing the numbers of protests are growing, and the police response is also growing. The mobilization of the security machine is more and more alert. And I really saw that this weekend. I was in the southwestern city of Chengdu. And on Saturday, there had been plans for a very big protest against a petrochemical plant. And, again, the methods that were used to stop this from happening were really extreme.

You know, there were leaflets put under the doors of tons and tons of people, telling them not to protest. There was a police exercise with policemen everywhere. And then most extreme of all, the city decided to actually move the weekend. They suddenly announced that kids had to go to school on Saturday, university...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

LIM: Yeah. University students had to go to class, and that instead, the day off would be Monday. So it was - you know, they rescheduled the weekend. It's an extremely Orwellian step to take, but it did work. No one dared protest.

GREENE: Social media growing in China has been a factor in some protests we've talked about in the past. Is the growing use of social media one reason we're seeing these larger incidents?

LIM: Well, it's certainly the way that the word gets out. You know, people hear what's happening, and often, they go to see with their own eyes, and then the crowds grow. But it also means that the government isn't able to keep these incidents and their response to these incidents quiet.

So yesterday, it was all over social media. And then, of course, the censorship machine kicks in. So, today, there were no mentions anywhere of this market where this happened or this woman's name. It's all banned on social media. So all of these rumors start passing, and that, you know, creates more skepticism and distrust.

So, of course, the long-term consequence is that the more that the government tries to use these measures they call stability maintenance, the more discontent they're causing, which then needs to be suppressed. So, you know, cynics would say the more stability is maintained, the less stable China actually becomes.

GREENE: Well, and I'm sure you'll be following these events for us, and we'll be checking in with you again.

NPR's Louisa Lim, joining us from Beijing. Thanks, Lisa.

LIM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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