| William Wan |
LUOKAN VILLAGE, China (WP-BLOOM) – Invoking the threat of terrorism, Chinese police for the first time in years have started carrying guns and, with little training, using them.
The fatal effects have rippled across the country, reaching even this tiny mountain village.
China’s removal of a ban on police guns came in response to a gruesome attack on a train station several hundred miles from here, but it has given the police almost blanket authority to shoot whenever they see fit.
More than a decade into America’s war on terror, China is launching its own. And experts worry the flood of newly armed police – combined with poor training and the government’s take-no-prisoners attitude – could become as fearful a problem as the terrorism it is intended to combat.
In the latest police-related violence, at least 40 people died Sunday in China’s restive Xinjiang region, according to state-run media, which attributed the incident to terrorists and identified the deceased as “rioters” shot by police or killed in explosions.
By contrast, the sleepy village of Luokan is about as remote and unlikely a place for terrorism as can be found.
Yet when police here recently shot dead a man in the middle of a busy market, they declared him a terrorist as well and abruptly closed the case.
“But everyone knows this is a lie,” said one villager in a hushed midnight interview inside his home.
“There are no terrorists here,” said another beside him. “The only ones we’re afraid of are the police.”
While police shootings are often viewed with suspicion worldwide – most notably in the death last month of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri – there are few countries where local authorities have as much power as they do in China to suppress all evidence afterward.
No one knows how many people die here from gun violence each year, much less from police shootings, because of government secrecy.
Among the killings publicly reported in the past five months, since the policy change: A man with a history of mental illness shot by police in Sichuan Province.
An allegedly drunk officer in Luoping County who quarrelled with one man then killed another who was trying to intervene, according to reports quickly taken down by censors.
And at a gun safety demonstration in front of kindergartners in Henan Prov-ince, an officer fired a loaded gun, thinking it was empty, and sent a kid and several parents to the hospital.
News of such shootings is often deleted. Physical evidence is seized and rarely released, say lawyers.
And it is often impossible to find witnesses willing to testify.
Amid growing fears among the public, officers say they have trepidations of their own, because many received their new guns with little to no training.
At a recent training session in Shandong Province, said one detective, several officers – not aware of the recoil force that comes with shooting – gripped their guns improperly and broke their thumbs.
Some police officers have been issued licenses without even visiting the firing range because their departments are fudging paperwork, according to officers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Most of us haven’t shot a gun in years,” said the detective. “A lot of cops are afraid to even hold one.”
Luokan is an isolated village. With few jobs, most here get by on low-paying work in surrounding counties.
The closest airport is in the equally impoverished city of Zhaotong. From there, it takes a six-hour drive through treacherous mountains, followed by another hour and half hike up a single-lane dirt road, to get here.
The road has been heavily monitored of late by local police, ever since they killed Fang Jiushu on May 15.
The shooting occurred in the town square in front of hundreds of witnesses on the busiest market day of the week, according to villagers. Yet few today are willing to even say Fang’s name in public.
Several Luokan residents – approached by a foreign journalist who had snuck into their village under the cover of night a few weeks after the shooting – refused to talk.
Fang’s friends and relatives were similarly reluctant, believing their phones to be tapped and their houses watched by informants.
Since Fang’s death, they said, government officials have visited many homes, warning all not to talk to outsiders.
But over the course of a night in secret interviews inside their homes, more than a dozen villagers gave their account of the shooting.
And their testimonies, coupled with cellphone pictures they provided of the shooting, contradict many aspects of the government account.
Those who knew Fang, 45, scoffed at the police characterisation of the lifelong villager and father of two as a “terrorist”.
Before the March 1 attack on a train station that sparked China’s new guns, they said, the word was seldom heard in their village.
Fang – who earned a living hauling goods in his truck – rarely got into fights, said his aunt Yang Daxiu, 68, but he did have a temper. “If he felt wronged, he was never shy about standing up for himself.”
Last year, a state-owned power company had seized part of Fang’s property to build a transmission tower, she and others said. Such land disputes are often the source of government corruption in China and have ignited much anger among rural residents.
For months, Fang had complained, to no avail. After he protested in front of the village’s government offices, local leaders threw him in jail for several days, relatives said.
On the day he was shot, Fang told a friend, “What I want is justice.”
So on the morning of May 15, Fang covered his truck with angry handwritten banners and parked it in front of the same government office, blocking all traffic, according to authorities and witnesses.
For five hours he negotiated with local leaders over compensation for his land.
At 2pm, armed officers suddenly arrived outside the office, according to an account corroborated by more than a dozen witnesses.
Plainclothes police surrounded Fang’s truck, joined by several uniformed SWAT officers, who had been summoned from a bigger county police department 30 minutes away.
Fang came out of the government building, having apparently agreed to take down his banners. But while he was removing them, officers put Fang’s brother in handcuffs. Seeing that, Fang scrambled to get in his truck.
When officers tried to stop Fang, he showed them a knife inside the truck, according to police.
A few witnesses, who knew Fang and saw the knife, said he often kept it in his truck on long hauls as insurance against bandits.
The shooting began once Fang closed the door and started the engine, witnesses said – at least 11 shots total, in quick succession.
It was the first time in decades, residents said, the crack of gunshots rang out in their village.