BEIJING (Reuters) - China has launched a nationwide campaign to defuse protest ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games, state media reported on Monday, days after a riot in the country’s southwest highlighted volatile social strains.
With authorities eager to present China as a harmonious nation during the August Games, the government has ordered local officials to defuse petition campaigns by discontented citizens and to prevent “mass incidents”, such as riots and demonstrations, according to the news reports.
“The Beijing Olympics are approaching and properly carrying out petition and stability work, protecting social harmony and stability, and ensuring the Beijing Olympics go safely and smoothly has become a tough battle that every department at every level must win,” said one report of a nationwide video conference on a stability drive that was held on Saturday.
"Now we are entering a state of war," said the report on a local government website in the eastern province of Zhejiang (www.dqnews.com.cn).
Yet at the very time officials were making plans for protest-free Games, a county in the southwest province of Guizhou was shaken by rioting over claimed police and official abuses.
Thousands of locals mobbed government offices in Weng‘an county, Guizhou. The local police headquarters was torched and police vehicles wrecked after claims spread that authorities had covered up a teenage girl’s death.
Saturday’s stability meeting was the latest of a flurry of security measures that China is taking to prevent any domestic unrest upsetting the Games and was targeted at petition campaigns by farmers and other disgruntled citizens.
Petitioners often pressure local officials by journeying to provincial capitals or the national capital with complaints about lost land and corruption.
Over the past decade, the number of petitioners journeying to provincial capitals and to Beijing has swollen. Nationwide, petitions and complaint visits grew from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2005.
"Our most fundamental demand that is that zero go to Beijing, zero go to the province capital and there are zero mass petitions and mass incidents," a county official in the southwest province of Sichuan said, according to a local official website (www.scpc.gov.cn).
Guaranteeing security is the top priority of the Beijing Olympics, Chinese President Hu Jintao has said.
Another account of Saturday’s meeting appeared in the Tibet Daily, where a vice chairman of the regional government, Baima Chilin, told officials to prevent more protests in the restive mountain area where anti-Chinese riots erupted in March.
Baima said the meeting had “made arrangements for creating a harmonious and stable social environment for a successful Beijing Olympic Games”.
In Weng‘an county, locals contacted on Monday morning said the protest had melted away, but the county town remained tense with heavy police patrols and broadcasts warning rioters to turn themselves in.
More than 300 people had been arrested following the riots, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based group, said in a statement received by fax on Monday.
Cui Yadong, Guizhou public security chief, told state media that “14 lawbreakers” had been detained on Saturday night, Xinhua news agency said.
Police had said the teenage girl had killed herself by jumping in a river, but residents said the girl had been raped and murdered by a relative of a senior government official.
The provincial government had re-opened the girl’s case, and set up a team of 10 criminal investigators and forensic experts to probe the cause of death, Xinhua said.
“The police certainly won’t let the arson go unpunished. They will catch the criminals,” said a Weng‘an businessman contacted by telephone. He gave only his surname, Liu.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang; Editing by Alex Richardson)