Protests in Zhongshan City, Guangdong

EastSouthWestNorth has pulled together over a dozen different accounts from both English and Chinese sources for a long blogpost headlined The Zhongshan Incident. This hits close to home for the Outliers, who spent a year teaching English at a locally sponsored startup Sun Wen College in the town of Shiqi in 1987-88. (Sun Wen is yet another name for Sun Zhongshan, better known abroad as Sun Yat-sen.)

At that time, it was a pleasant enough little town where nearly everything was under construction. The new road south to Zhuhai put the Macao border within about an hour’s drive, but the road north to Guangzhou took around three hours in a muddy, slow-moving, perpetual traffic jam.

Here’s a chunk of reporter Howard French’s account in the New York Times on 16 January.

SHANGHAI, Jan. 16 – A week of protests by villagers in China’s southern industrial heartland exploded into violence over the weekend with thousands of police officers brandishing automatic weapons and using electric batons to put down the rally, residents of the village said today.

As many as 60 people were injured, residents of Panlong village said, and at least one person, a 13-year-old girl, had been killed by security forces, they said. The police denied any responsibility, saying that the girl had died of a heart attack.

Residents of Panlong, about an hour’s drive from the capital of Guangdong Province, said the police had chased and beaten protesters and bystanders alike, and that locals had retaliated by smashing police cars and mounting hit-and-run attacks, throwing rocks at security forces.

The clash with villagers in Panlong marked the second time in a month that large numbers of Chinese security forces, including paramilitary troops, were deployed to put down a local demonstration.

The protests coincided with a visit to the area by the North Korean president, Kim Il Jong. The secretive Korean leader’s visit, though never publicly confirmed by Beijing, is a poorly kept secret, and some residents said his presence in the region over the weekend may have contributed to the nervousness of the security forces. Like thousands of other demonstrations roiling rural China, it involved land use and environmental issues….

Indeed, demonstrating residents of Panlong village said their anger had been sparked by a government land acquisition program they had been led to believe in 2003 was part of a construction project to build a superhighway connecting the nearby city of Zhuhai with Beijing. Later, the villagers learned the land was being re-sold to developers to set up special chemical and garment industrial zones in the area.

The region that immediately surrounds Panlong village is among the most heavily industrialized land anywhere, and was the laboratory and launching pad for the economic changes put in place by Deng Xiaoping. These revolutionary changes revived the country and turned it, in the space of a generation, into a global economic powerhouse.

Panlong village is a short drive from Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhuhai – all large and booming cities virtually created from scratch. It is also close to Guangzhou, the provincial capital, and to Hong Kong, whose investments helped fuel the area’s takeoff. The region is not only the scene of some of China’s fastest growing industries, including high-tech manufacturing, textiles and furniture – much of which is exported to the United States – it is also the scene of some of the country’s worst pollution.

For most of the year visibility over the scrubland plains is so poor that beyond a few hundred yards all detail is lost behind a thick gray curtain of eye-stinging haze. Water supplies in the area are equally imperiled by the pollution. The situation has become so bad that even residents of Hong Kong, whose economy is dependent upon the adjacent region’s growth, rue the environmental monster they have helped create.

Increasingly, their ambivalence is shared by rural dwellers in the area, some of the first people to benefit from the opening up of the country to foreign and private investment, which began in special economic zones in nearby areas in Guangdong as part of China’s sweeping economic reforms.

“We have many special zones in this area, and each of them attracts investment,” said a villager who was interviewed by telephone and gave his name as Hou. “The economic deals set in the past were not favorable, and many zones here have had smaller protests before, but the people were not united.”

“Now,” he added, “there are uprisings everywhere.”

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