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Last Updated: Friday, 16 March 2007, 14:36 GMT
Reporting protests in rural China
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Zhushan

In a one-party state, made up of more than a billion people, there is an awful lot to hide.

A damaged vehicle in Zhushan after a riot on 12 March 2007
Several vehicles were burned in the riot

On any given day in China there may be 200 different protests. Most take place in the countryside, where many feel left behind by China's economic boom.

But the Chinese state works hard to make sure that these demonstrations are kept well out of sight.

This week, though, there was an exception.

People in the town of Zhushan, near the city of Yongzhou, in central China's Hunan province, burned buses in a protest against a rise in bus fares.

Riot police were sent in to take control. A camera crew managed to film and broadcast pictures of the aftermath.

We wanted to go and have a look for ourselves.

Security presence

Until last year, there was a clear procedure to follow. We would have needed permission from the local authorities to travel to Zhushan. Once we got there, local officials would have had to accompany us to every interview.

But, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Communist Party has decided to relax its rules.

I was scared. My whole body trembled. I ran away holding my baby
Witness to the violence

In theory, foreign journalists no longer need to seek permission from the local authorities in order to visit.

So, I flew with my colleagues to Hunan and we drove straight into the town of Zhushan.

Along the main road, shops and market stalls were open. All evidence of the recent protests had been swept away.

But as we drove on, we saw riot police standing in formation in the grounds of the police station. The station's gates were left open.

A few blocks away, we saw soldiers in green camouflage uniform. A handful were standing over a pot preparing to cook a leg of pork.

We approached a few local people who were happy to talk to us.

They told us that problems began after the Chinese New Year in February when a single bus company took control of all local routes.

They say the company took advantage of its monopoly to double its fares.

One regular passenger told us that fares rose from between five to seven yuan (65-90 US cents) to 15 yuan ($1.90).

Violent clashes

What angered people in Zhushan was the belief that their local officials were colluding with the bus company to raise prices - for a share of the takings.

So, last Friday, parents of secondary school students started to protest against the fare rises.

hunan map

The protests gained momentum. Four days later, reports say that around 20,000 people took part in demonstrations. Protestors set fire to a number of buses.

At this point riot police moved in to impose order.

"I was scared," said one woman, who did not want to be identified.

"My whole body trembled. I ran away holding my baby. I heard they attacked a pregnant woman. Also they dragged a man off his motorbike to beat him. They didn't care whether or not you were a protester."

Reporter's arrest

Still, the protesters made their point. The bus company was forced to abandon its fare rise.

But it came at a cost. It is reported that dozens of people were injured and that one student was killed, although the Chinese authorities denied there were any deaths.

The police had made their point - this was their town. And we had broken their rules

We tried to check the report of the student's death. One woman insisted that he had not been killed, but his legs had been broken. No-one could give us his name.

Before we could find out any more, several dozen soldiers approached us and told us to stop what we were doing.

They told us the town was under military control and we did not have permission to stay. They called for the local police.

The police decided we should answer questions in the upstairs bedroom of a hotel off the main road.

So we climbed the stairs, sat on the bed and handed over our documents.

Half a dozen officers watched over us. Several had video cameras with them - so our interrogation turned into a kind of photo shoot.

The officers took it in turn to film us as well as each page of our passports.

Then, two senior officers came in. The room went quiet.

"You need a certificate of permission to be in this town," said one of them as he sifted through the passports.

Then he paused and looked up to make his point. "Do you have such a certificate?"

"No, we don't," I replied.

"This is not Britain or the United States," he warned. "This is China."

We told him of the new decree that allowed foreign journalists to travel anywhere in China without permission.

"That's only for Olympics-related stories," he said. Then he paused again. "And I don't think you are here for the Olympics."

He looked down at the passports once more. Outside, it was beginning to get dark. In the hallway, officers discussed the idea of watching us overnight.

We prepared for a long stay. But then, they told us we could go. We were escorted to our car. Slightly bizarrely, the police officers stood by the side of the road and waved us off.

They had made their point - this was their town. And we had broken their rules.

We left Zhushan. We never did get to find out the name of the teenage boy who may or may not have been killed in the protests.



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