Page last updated at 14:32 GMT, Friday, 7 September 2007 15:32 UK

Venturing into unreported China

China has pledged more freedoms for reporters ahead of next year's Olympics, but when the BBC's Dan Griffiths travelled to the countryside to investigate reports of unrest he was detained and questioned.

File image of a policeman standing in front of the Chinese flag
China wants to keep reports of rural unrest under wraps

The village of Shengyou is a three hour drive south of Beijing, deep in the countryside surrounded by fields of maize.

A traditional landscape found across this vast nation - but everything is not as it seems.

My taxi driver tells me that the police have set up checkpoints round the village. He refuses to go any further - so I go the rest of the way on foot.

I walk down a narrow lane with broad poplar trees on either side. A small tractor chugs by, the driver stares at me - foreigners are rarely seen around here.

Round a bend in the road, I see two white vans. Several policemen are standing beside them. They look as out of place in rural China as I do.

The questions come thick and fast. What am I doing? Where have I come from? Who is my contact in the village?

Over the course of the next few hours they will ask me this last question again and again. From nowhere a black car pulls up and I am ushered inside.

Battle of Shengyou

Two years ago there was a riot in Shengyou. In the early hours of a November morning a gang of more than 100 men entered the village.

Footage of the clashes in the Chinese village
The 2005 clash was caught on video and widely disseminated

They were wearing camouflage gear and construction helmets, some armed with hunting rifles, clubs and shovels.

What happened next was filmed by a local resident and smuggled out to the international media.

The video showed a series of bloody clashes between the villagers and the attackers. Gunshots could be heard above the shouting and screaming.

When the fighting finally stopped, six people lay dead, more than 50 were injured.

With the dramatic footage circulating, the authorities moved quickly.

State media said the Shengyou residents had been resisting the takeover of their property by an electricity company which wanted to build a power plant.

It emerged that there had been a similar clash earlier in the year, which had gone unreported. Several local officials were sacked and the villagers won their claim to stay on the land.

But now the police are back in Shengyou.

'Welcome to Dingzhou'

I am in the backseat of the black car on the way to the nearby town of Dingzhou.

Next to me is one of the men from the checkpoint. He is not wearing a police uniform and refuses to give me his name or show me any ID.


The questions keep on coming - how do I know about Shengyou? Why was I on foot?

I tell him that my taxi driver was too scared to go near the village. He laughs. At one point he reaches over and tries to grab my mobile phone.

I ask some questions of my own - why are they detaining me? What is going on in Shengyou? He says nothing.

At the town's government headquarters, an official shakes my hand. "You are welcome to Dingzhou," he says, pretending that I am an honoured guest.

We sit around a large oval table. I am on one side, officials are on the other. Several refuse to give me their names. They want to see my journalist's identity card. And again the questions.

New regulations issued this year were supposed to give foreign journalists much greater freedom to travel around the country.

They were also supposed to mean less harassment from local officials - a common problem in the past and one that has not gone away.

I tell them I heard reports about problems in the village and had come down to look around.

People living near Shengyou say that armed police were sent into the village two weeks ago.

It is not until the next day that my driver discovers that while we were eating someone tampered with our car

That was after residents dug up the bodies of those who had died in the violence in November 2005. They wanted to protest at the lack of official compensation for the families of those who were killed or injured then.

What is happening in Shengyou is not unique. It is another reminder of growing social tensions in rural China.

The government has admitted that there were tens of thousands of rural protests last year. Many are about land grabs like the one attempted in Shengyou, others about corruption or the growing gap between rich and poor.

The authorities in Beijing say they want to do something about these problems - but often officials at the local level ignore these edicts.

Heading home

The interview is over. Officials say they will escort me back to the highway.

I meet up with my driver, who has been waiting for me. Three officials also get in the car. They sit either side of me on the back seat. Another in the front.

A woman walks past high-rise buildings in Beijing
This is the China the government wants to portray

As we drive out of town a black car comes alongside. The driver says we must pull over. This game of cat and mouse continues up the highway to Beijing. Finally I tell my driver to ignore them and head home.

"Have you been to Beijing before?" I ask the officials. They laugh nervously.

Then I see blue and red flashing lights. The police will not say why they have stopped us, nor will they say when we can go. We wait at the side of the road.

Up ahead there is a big neon sign lit up in green - "One World, One Dream". It is the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics.

"Is this how you will treat journalists when China hosts the Olympics?" I ask one of them. "Oh, everything will be different then," he says.

Then another car pulls up, with representatives from the local office of China's foreign ministry. I know my colleagues in Beijing have been pressing the foreign ministry to take action.

"There has been a terrible mistake, we are so sorry." They insist that we must go out for dinner with the officials from Dingzhou, then we can go back to Beijing.

It is a strange experience sitting round the same table with the men who detained me.

It is not until the next day that my driver discovers that while we were eating, someone tampered with our car by removing several of the bolts that attach the wheels to the chassis.

It is nearly midnight by the time we arrive back in Beijing. We drive down the wide, brightly-lit boulevards, past the new office blocks.

This is the China that Beijing wants the world to see. But in Shengyou there is another China - a world that goes unreported by the country's state-run media.

China's President, Hu Jintao, has promised to build what he calls a "harmonious society", but three hours south of Beijing, no-one in power seems to be listening.

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