Protest Planned over Land Dispute in China

More than a week after Chinese security personnel shot and killed farmers over a land dispute in the south of the country, the Chinese people know little about the incident. Now, the incident is becoming a rallying point for human rights activists at home and abroad.

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China's government is trying to deal with a controversial land dispute in the south of the country. More than a week after security personnel shot and killed farmers there, the Chinese public knows little about the incident. Chinese media hasn't reported it, yet it's becoming a rallying point for human rights activists at home and abroad. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Hong Kong.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Neither the Chinese government nor the state-owned press has identified any of the residents of Dongzhou township who were shot on December 6th. Some Dongzhou locals know who they are, they're just not at liberty to speak. Wong Wetia(ph) is a 24-year-old native of Dongzhou who moved to Hong Kong a few years ago. Speaking at a crowded restaurant, he says he received e-mail pictures from his friends back home of some of the slain men.

Mr. WONG WETIA (Dongzhou, China, Native): (Through Translator) It's been several days since I first looked at those pictures. I haven't slept well since.

KUHN: Wong points to a picture of a man's body covered in blood and lying on a hospital gurney. He says the dead man, Jung Guanzhee(ph), used to live right next to him and once made a living collecting scrap for recycling.

Mr. WETIA: (Through Translator) My friend said that he was talking water to the villagers, who were protesting. The government shot him in the head and he died on the spot.

KUHN: A man who answered Jung Guanzhee's home phone in Dongzhou confirmed that Jung had been killed. He declined to say anything else, adding that police were tapping his phone.

This week, dozens of Chinese intellectuals posted a signed letter on the Internet condemning the killings. Hong Kong-based human rights groups are planning to assemble in Victoria Park on Saturday for a protest march against the killings. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch called yesterday on Beijing to allow an independent investigation into the incident. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman rejected that suggestion, saying China would handle the matter itself. Mickey Spiegel is Human Rights Watch's senior researcher in New York.

Ms. MICKEY SPIEGEL (Human Rights Watch): I mean, the pattern's been in so many of these incidents to find a scapegoat, to say, `Hey, it was this person's fault, and we solved the problem.'

KUHN: The government alleges that panicked security forces shot only when attacked by spear-wielding Molotov cocktail-hurling townspeople. In one of its few reports on the story, Chinese state media said the main protest organizer in Dongzhou was a man named Huon Zhe June(ph). Beijing-based lawyer Gow Zhe Shung(ph) says Huon phoned him in late October to see if he would take on the townsfolks' case.

Mr. GOW ZHE SHUNG (Attorney): (Through Translator) I told him that if I get involved, I hope you can put this conflict into a legal framework and avoid bigger cases, but the government rejected my efforts.

KUHN: Gong says that less than a week later, judicial authorities in Beijing called him and warned him to stay away from the case. The government recently shut down Gow's law firm and disbarred him after his involvement in numerous human rights cases.

Chinese media said that authorities had arrested the commander of the security forces who fired on the townsfolk. They did not report his name or unit. Mickey Spiegel says prosecuting the man could send the wrong signal from Beijing's point of view.

Ms. SPIEGEL: The message then to the villagers would be one way to deal with these grievances is to protest.

KUHN: It could also damage the morale of security forces. Of course, not prosecuting him could lead to future massacres and draw more international condemnation. Giving this dilemma, observers point out, one option for Beijing would be to punish or release the commander and then not tell anyone about it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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