by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: wfeiden/WikiCommons/CC
CLASHES BETWEEN local residents and police broke out late last month in the Chinese township of Wenlou over plans to build a crematorium in the city of Maoming, which Wenlou is a part of. Wenlou is located in Guangdong, approximately 100 kilometers north of Hong Kong, and has a population of 60,000.
Riot police were filmed attacking local residents with batons, including beating the elderly and firing tear gas. Armored vehicles were also deployed in the town. Some estimates suggest that 1,000 or more riot police were deployed.
Local residents were filmed flipping over a car and reportedly fired firecrackers at police. Unconfirmed claims by local residents suggest that the entire town may have been blockaded off by police.
Local residents originally believed that an ecological park was to be built, but were angered by plans to build the crematorium. Local residents cited concerns that the crematorium would contaminate the local water supply, given the large size of the crematorium.
Local residents were to have given up farmland in order to provide for the park’s construction to begin with. To this extent, local residents were broadly angered by the unaccountability of the local government in deciding to unilaterally change long-agreed upon plans for the park construction, then to deploy large amounts of riot police to prevent residents from petitioning the local government, something residents claimed had never happened before. Some Wenlou residents cited that the local government may have believed that local residents were uneducated and would not have noticed a sudden shift in construction plans, or did not expect that they would not put up any resistance.
— 自由亚洲电台 (@RFA_Chinese) November 29, 2019
Video of the protests. Film credit: RFA
In the wake of the protests, local authorities announced that plans to build the crematorium would be suspended. According to some reports at the time, as many as 100 local residents were arrested in the course of four days of protests, but the release of several hundred demonstrators after the end of the protests suggests that the amount of those arrested was much higher than previously known.
Protests against crematoriums, chemical plants, landfills, and other facilities are fairly regular occurrences in China. An April 2014 protest in Maoming against a PX plant mobilized tens of thousands. Protests also took place in nearby Ligang the same month against plans to construct a different crematorium.
The Chinese government is likely wary of protest given the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong which have rocked the city for the past half-year, with fears that protest could eventually spread to China.
There are some reports which state that Wenlou residents chanted slogans derived from Hong Kong protest slogans, such as “Restore Maoming, revolution of our times” (光復茂名，時代革命), and that they also had “five demands” in their protest. Some reports cite that Wenlou residents expressing sympathy for Hong Kong protests similarly being on the receiving end of police brutality, though there are also reports of Wenlou residents attempting to claim that local government authorities were unjustly attacking Wenlou residents by deploying riot police against them when their energies would have been better focused on Hong Kong.
Indeed, it is probable that differing Wenlou residents had varying views on how their protests related to those in Hong Kong some one hundred kilometers away. One notes, however, that difference between Hong Kong and Wenlou is apparent in the paucity of information available on the protests in Wenlou given censorship of images and video from the protests on Weibo and other Chinese social media networks, whereas information about protests in Hong Kong is more readily available.
It is unlikely that protestors in China or Hong Kong would come to take on the same demands, given differing reasons for protesting—even if protestors in both China and Hong Kong confront the same shared enemy of the CCP.
However, there is a broader pattern of the Chinese government attempting to pin the blame for outbreaks of protest in southern China on outside interference coming from nearby Hong Kong. The most prominent example of this may be the Chinese government’s attempts to depict the Jasic struggle as a product of outside interference from Hong Kong in the last two years, seeing as it broke out in neighboring Shenzhen.
It is not impossible that the Chinese government will attempt to do the same with regards to protests in Guangdong inclusive of, but not limited to protests by Wenlou residents. It is less clear whether the Chinese government simply is attempting to smear protests in this way or whether it does genuinely see threats, failing to grasp how they are a product of domestic tensions.
In the meantime, it is not yet known as to whether any local residents of Wenlou may still remain imprisoned, or whether the government intends to pursue any charges against Wenlou residents down the line, or whether it may even attempt to resume construction on the crematorium once the issue has settled down. This remains to be seen.