NANCHANG, China - Authorities kept a tight grip around a village in central China yesterday to cover up what residents say was a bloody government assault Sunday in which two people were shot to death and at least 17 wounded.
Police maintained road blocks outside the village in Jiangxi province after an American reporter visited earlier in the week.
Authorities permitted only family members to leave the village so they could visit injured relatives in nearby hospitals.
"The closing off of the village shows that they don't respect human rights and they interfere with [our] freedom," said a villager in a telephone interview.
"Everybody is afraid because they don't know what is going to happen next," the villager continued. "They are afraid they will come in again and arrest more people."
On Sunday, some 600 police armed with rifles, handguns and electric batons marched into Yuntang - part of a cluster of villages known as Yunxing - and began arresting residents in what local people said was a police crackdown on their 3-year-old opposition to usurious taxation.
As villagers emerged from their homes that morning, local and paramilitary police started shooting at their feet and legs to bring them to the ground, residents said. When townspeople defended themselves with fists and bamboo poles, the officers - some of whom wore body armor - aimed for their chests and continued to fire.
Reports of clashes between poor farmers and police over high taxes have grown more frequent in recent years, but this case is one of the most detailed and brutal to come to light. The explosion of violence raises questions about how the Communist Party is handling mounting unrest in the countryside, where most of China's 1.3 billion people live.
The force that led the assault, the China's People's Armed Police, is trained to control riots and prevent a repeat of the 1989 massacre in Beijing when the government crushed the Tiananmen Square uprising with soldiers and tanks. At the time, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed protesters were slaughtered by heavily armed soldiers in the streets and alleys of the capital.
As residents sat trapped in the village yesterday, they waited for a government response to a series of demands they made earlier this week, including the release of Su Guosheng, who was arrested April 14 and had organized local opposition to high taxes.
Yesterday, government officials showed victims in the hospital a videotape of Su, which they said was made Wednesday or Thursday, a village official said. There were few other details available about the presentation, which was designed to refute rumors in the village that Su had died from beatings while in custody.
Su's daughter, Su Xifeng, said her father was ambushed by more than 20 police on the morning of April 14 after government officials lured him to the riverside to see a spot they claimed could be used for a power station. Police grabbed him by the feet and spirited him away by motor boat, a village source said earlier this week.
The village source said Su Guosheng is being held in the Yujiang County Detention Center. Reached yesterday by phone, Yujiang police said they did not know anything about the case. It is not uncommon for Chinese police to arrest people and hold them for months before informing anyone of their whereabouts or status.
In addition to Su's release, villagers have also demanded compensation for the two people who were killed, free medical care for those injured and the firing of a Yujiang County official, Tong Jinyou, whom they blame for years of high taxes, which they said threatened to bankrupt them.
Villagers said the agricultural tax - $36 per year for every one-fifth of an acre farmed - would crush them financially. Families generally receive a fifth of an acre per person. After the tax, fertilizer and irrigation fees, they would be left with an annual profit of no more than $22 for each plot.
Inflated taxes and outrageous fees are a major problem in rural China, where local officials squeeze money from poor farmers to satisfy their own greed and demands from higher-ups. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji has pledged to crack down on the problem, which is one reason local villagers had refused to pay the tax, Su Xifeng said.
The Chinese government has maintained a news blackout on Sunday's violence. An American reporter who arrived in Nanchang yesterday was immediately detained by government officials and sent back to Beijing on the first available flight.
Villagers said journalists from Xinhua, China's official government news service, visited this week and cried after interviewing residents. As of last night, though, Xinhua had not issued a report on the assault.
Villagers expressed frustration that China's state-run media had ignored the event and said they were gratified that foreign news agencies were helping publicize their plight. At the same time, they said they feared the government might level their homes if they were caught talking to overseas journalists.
Villagers also predicted that if the local government ever chose to publicize Sunday's attack, it would portray them as criminals and the assault as a justified strike on a criminal society.
Jiangxi, which means "west of the river," has a tradition of peasant insurrection and holds a special place in China's revolutionary history.
Last August, more than 10,000 peasants surrounded a town hall, demanding a reduction in taxes and fees they said were devouring their earnings. The protest spread to other towns, where farmers shattered windows and attacked officials' homes.
Jiangxi province is the birthplace of the Communist army, which historians date to Aug. 1, 1927. On that day, tens of thousands of troops seized Nanchang from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist soldiers after their massacre of Communists months earlier.
Jiangxi is also the starting point of "The Long March." During their 5,000-mile trek, Mao Tse-tung's troops survived hardships and difficult terrain while winning the hearts and minds of China's poor peasants along the way.