China Admits Police Killed Protestors

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - The Chinese government has made a rare public admission about an incident in which policemen opened fire on civilians protesting a local grievance, However, the government denied reports that 20 or more people had been killed, saying only three had died.

After days of rumors and conflicting accounts about last week's violence in a fishing village near Hong Kong, the official Xinhua news agency confirmed police had used force after they were threatened by people protesting land seizures.

It said protestors were armed with knives, sticks, Molotov cocktails and other weapons and some had begun to throw "explosives" -- detonators used to catch fish -- at the police.

"Police were forced to open fire in alarm. In the chaos, three villagers died, eight were injured."

Hong Kong's RHTK broadcaster reported that the commander of the police involved in the shooting had been arrested and was being blamed by provincial authorities for the deaths.

"The detention of such an official is almost unprecedented and suggests mainland officials are trying to mollify angry villagers," it said.

The dispute in the southern Guangdong province, brewing for months, arose over complaints that villagers had not been compensated for land expropriated for the building of a wind-power plant, and for damage they say is being caused to their fishing habitat, according to Chinese media.

The violence erupted after a large group of people protesting against the earlier arrest of several representatives who had gone to the power plant to complain to the authorities.

Protests by Chinese citizens unhappy about local corruption, taxes, land disputes, official abuses or hardships linked to economic restructuring have become increasingly commonplace in the communist nation.

"While the government often tolerates these types of protests as an outlet for pent-up grievances, security forces have also forcibly broken up many demonstrations, particularly those with overt political and social messages or where protestors became unruly," says Freedom House, a U.S.-based rights watchdog.

Nonetheless, the use of weapons by protestors or firearms by security forces is reported to be rare, and Amnesty International says last week's incident marked the first time Chinese forces had fired on protesters since pro-democracy protests were crushed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

On Friday, the State Department issued a statement about Human Rights Day - marked around the world on Saturday - in which China was named as a country where "the struggle for human rights continues," along with Cuba, Belarus, Burma, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea.

Beijing on Sunday reacted strongly to the statement, accusing Washington of interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations under the pretext of voicing concern about human rights.

Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China had scored remarkable achievements in the field of human rights protection, and that its citizens enjoy full human rights and freedom according to law.

"As the year is drawing to an end, we suggest the U.S. side should take a clear consideration of the situation and make self-reflection on its own human rights problems," Qin said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow