Sunday, May 27, 2007

Villagers riot as China enforces birth limit

Source: Guardian Unlimited.

Officials beaten by crowd in south-western province
Large fines and seizing of property spark violence


Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Tuesday May 22, 2007
The Guardian
.

Thousands of villagers in south-west China have attacked family planning officials, overturned cars and set fire to government buildings in a riot sparked by the state's one-child policy.

Riot police have been sent to at least four townships in the Guangxi autonomous region after disturbances that led to multiple injuries and unconfirmed reports of two fatalities, witnesses and Hong Kong media reported yesterday.

The unrest comes in the wake of a new crackdown by the Bobai county government against families that break birth control regulations. Financial penalties have increased and parents who fail to pay are being punished by having their property confiscated or destroyed.

At the height of the demonstrations on Saturday, a crowd of several thousand stormed the Shapi municipal office, pulled down a wall and chased and beat officials from the family planning department. This followed demonstrations in towns across Bobai county.

Under state policies dating back to the late 1970s, most urban couples can only have one child. Families from rural areas and ethnic minorities can often have two children, especially if the first is a girl. The aim of the policy is to slow the growth of the world's biggest population, which is seen as a drain on resources.

In Bobai, the rules were weakly enforced for many years, but this spring the local government established "family planning work squads" to collect penalties retrospectively.

A student who gave only his surname, Zhou, told the Guardian his family were fined 2,000 yuan (£132) because they had three sons in the 1980s. His uncle, who has five children, was fined 20,000 yuan. "He only earns 1,200 yuan per month ... But if you cannot pay, the officials come to your home and confiscate the contents. If you refuse, then smash, smash, smash."

On internet chatrooms and in telephone conversations, locals said the work teams had confiscated cattle, DVD players, crockery and other household goods in lieu of unpaid fines.

Officials from other government departments were mobilised for the campaign. One woman, Mrs Luo, said she was recruited to make up the numbers of the "work squads". "Usually we went to a house and asked them to pay the fine," she said. "If no one answered, some men in our group used hammers to break in and take away property. If there was not enough to confiscate, they smashed the walls. Before we used to force women to have abortions but now the target seems to have changed to raising money. I hate this job, but I have no choice."

Another local man, Mr Lu of Yulin village, said the riot started after the work teams bulldozed the house of a poor farmer who could not afford the fine. The farmer reportedly went to the municipal office to protest and returned with broken fingers, stirring up anger in his community.

Local governments and police refused to comment. The state-run media has been forbidden to report the incident.

A doctor at the Shabei hospital told Reuters that several injured people had been treated there. Online photographs of protests showed smashed cars, burning buildings and a rioter stealing a computer monitor. There were also images of work squads in army fatigues carrying sledgehammers.

The one-child policy has become a symbol of the wealth gap in China. Earlier this month, government officials admitted that many rich families violated the rules because they could afford the fines.

Inequality, land grabs and pollution fears have prompted a wave of unrest. According to the ministry of public security, there were 87,000 "mass incidents" reported in 2005, up 6.6% on 2004 and 50% on 2003.

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