When farmers from the Dai minority protested against the exploitation by a rubber company, the police sided with the company, killed two villagers and seriously wounded another ten.
The Menglian incident of July 19, 2008, was followed with considerable emotion in China, for reasons going beyond the fact, tragic in itself, that two villagers lost their lives. It happened two weeks before the Beijing Olympics and was widely interpreted by dissidents and human right activists as evidence that, in a conflict between workers and companies exploiting them, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), theoretically the workers’ party, was ready to take the side of the most ruthless greed. It also confirmed the mastery of the CCP in hiding the truth about its most brutal activities under a curtain of fake news, something which also happens today in the field of religious persecution.
Bitter Winter remembers the Menglian incident on its tenth anniversary. Our correspondents went to the scene of the massacre and collected evidence from local sources, who preferred to remain anonymous but provided us with unique photographs and footage.
Dai is an ethnic group living in Southern Yunnan and related to the majority populations of Thailand and Laos (their name is also spelled “Tai”). On July 19 of 2008, less than one month before the Beijing Olympics, authorities employed violent means of suppression against Dai villagers from Meng’a village in Menglian county of Mengma town, Yunnan. Fully-armed public security and police officers shot at the Dai locals, killing two individuals on the spot and seriously injuring more than ten. The massacre quickly gained the attention of people from all walks of life in China and overseas.
CCP officials sealed off the scene of the event and prohibited reporters from entering it to investigate or conduct interviews with the villagers who witnessed the massacre, seeking to hide the evidence of the suppression by the police and making it difficult for the outside world to understand the truth of what has happened. Thankfully, memories and documents remained, and we are able to bring the facts to light ten years later.
Rubber Farmers Exploited
In March 1982, persuaded by mayor Ai Ya (30 at the time), the villagers from twenty groups in the village of Meng’a signed an unfair contract with a rubber company to grow rubber trees. As stipulated in the contract, when the trees matured in 1990, they began to harvest rubber. The company only paid the villagers 30% of the price of latex, taking the other 70%, and the government demanded each village household pay a tax of 10% per kg to village committees and groups. With these multiple layers of deductions, earning 0.3 RMB per kg of the latex purchased from them, a village household that grew over 300 rubber trees and harvested about 600 kg of latex per month, would make a monthly income of a mere 180 RMB (a little less than US$ 27).
The rubber company sent its personnel every month to inspect the incisions made in the rubber trees by each household. While the company offered a cash reward each month (2, 3, or 5 RMB) to each household whose trees met their standards, at the same time, for minimal damage to the bark of the trees, the company would impose a fine of 30, 50, or even 80 RMB. Adding all these factors together, even with the villagers’ hard labor – getting up early, staying up late, and working with only a few breaks – they still were not earning enough each month to support their families. They did not have enough money for food and clothing, and children had to drop out of school because their families could not afford their tuition.
Regardless, in the twelve years from 1990 to 2002, the villagers continued to sell their liquid rubber to the company. Eventually, some of them, realizing that they were unable to go on making a living in this way, sold all the rubber trees, that they had poured their sweat and tears into growing and harvesting for the past ten-plus years, for 5 RMB each, to get by, and sought other means of survival.
After 2003, the market price of rubber products skyrocketed, reaching approximately 18,000 RMB per ton, and at its highest even 28,000 RMB. However, the rubber company only paid the villagers 6,500 RMB per ton.
In April 2006, the Village Committee was informed that rubber farmers from neighboring Banbian Village Committee in Gongxin township had been selling their rubber to the city of Jinghong, the seat of the autonomous Dai prefecture of Xishuangbanna and were getting 8 to 10 RMB per kg of rubber, while the price the rubber company was offering to the Dai of Meng’a village had only risen from 0.3 RMB to 0.7 RMB per kg. The villagers petitioned the government leadership on multiple occasions, hoping that it would come to their aid and negotiate with the rubber company; however, they met with refusals and even threats.
In August 2007, to preserve their right to survival, villagers elected 14 representatives from all village groups involved. Headed by a villager named Yang Fazhan, they tried to appeal to higher-up echelons in the government, handing over a petition to Director Wang of the Yunnan Provincial Government Petitions Office, the Pu’er City Government Petitions Office, and the People’s Government of Menglian County in the city of Pu’er.
In October of the same year, lawyer Ma Minhui (43 at the time) from a law firm in Pu’er took the villagers’ case. The villagers had high expectations, hoping that different levels of government would be able to give a voice to them, and solve their problem of not having enough food to eat or clothes on their backs. However, after more than ten days of waiting, they still heard no news. Feeling helpless, on May 16, 2008, the villagers decided to sell their rubber in Jinghong – the same place where rubber farmers from neighboring Banbian were getting better prices.
When the villagers began to look for other buyers, government officials and the rubber company interpreted it as a threat to their interests. For this reason, on July 11, the authorities and the company colluded, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the Beijing Olympics. Accusing the farmers of “mobbing and disrupting public order,” they dispatched over 1,000 fully-armed public security and police officers to Meng’a village to wait on standby.
On July 14, at approximately 11 p.m., five officers from the County Public Security Bureau arrested village representative Yang Fazhan, handcuffed him on the spot and took him to the Pu’er City Detention Center.
On July 16, fifteen Meng’a villagers (including two women of the Wa ethnic group) were illegally apprehended. Police drove around the village, going from home to home to arrest village representatives, using pepper spray, handcuffing them, and putting black bags over their heads. The arrested were taken to the Menglian County Detention Center where they were held for seven days without any judicial order.
The same afternoon, the police arrested a village representative, Ai Hu (34 at the time). Handcuffed and with a black bag on his head, he was taken to the same detention center and held in custody for seven days.
At 9 a.m. on July 17, lawyer Ma Minhui was at work at a law firm in Pu’er city, when 11 police officers from the city’s Menglian County Public Security Bureau came to arrest him, taking him to the Pu’er City Detention Center and holding him there for six days.
The Tragedy of July 19
At 4:47 a.m. on July 19 of 2008, it was raining when fully-armed public security bureau officers and armed police arrived carrying handguns, shotguns, tranquilizer guns, and machine guns, wearing bulletproof armors and metal helmets, and wielding shields, as they drove to their target location in 49 vehicles, including cars, coaches, and military vehicles, and blockaded all nearby roads, forbidding anyone from entering or leaving. At the time, the whole county’s Internet, phone service, and electricity had all been shut off.
The police parked their vehicles on the side of the road, entered the village, and began to arrest people. One after another, they charged into the homes of five village representatives from the Menglang Group of Meng’a Village Committee and apprehended them by force.
Below are detailed accounts of the arrest of the five persecuted villagers.
Ai Cai (43 at the time) was sleeping, when five armed police and public security bureau officers smashed open his front door and beat him unconscious with truncheons, then cuffed his hands diagonally behind his back, and put a black bag over his head before dragging him to a car.
Ai San (about 30 at the time) and his wife were asleep when, early in the morning, more than ten armed officers broke down the front door and sprayed the couple in the eyes with pepper spray, temporarily blinding them. Police then cuffed Ai San’s hands behind his back, put a black bag over his head, and escorted him into a car. Police also beat him with rubber police truncheons.
The police surrounded the house of Ai Mo, (38 at the time) when his family was still asleep, and about a dozen officers charged in through his front door and went on to beat Ai Mo’s wife and daughter. Eventually, they decided to spare his crying eight-year-old daughter and his wife who was shaking from the shock. They cuffed Ai Mo’s hands behind his back, put a black bag over his head, and escorted him to a squad car, beating him with rubber truncheons on the way.
Aiyi Nanbo (45 at the time) was going to the bathroom at approximately 5 a.m. when a dozen or so officers charged in to arrest him and violently beat him with rubber truncheons.
Aiyi Bingsuo (42 at the time) was at home asleep when police charged in, and before he could react, put him in handcuffs and put a black bag over his head. Only in underwear, Aiyi Bingsuo was taken to a squad car, officers beating him violently with rubber truncheons on the way.
Incited by police brutality, infuriated villagers spontaneously rushed from their houses and ran after the armed police and public security bureau officers who were arresting people, arguing with them. The armed police guarding the roads wouldn’t let anyone near where officers were detaining people. At around 6 a.m., at daybreak, the villagers attempted to move forward, trying to understand the situation and intending to speak on behalf of the five representatives who were detained. However, the police completely ignored the villagers’ appeals, putting up police tape and shouting warnings in Mandarin through a megaphone: “Do not get any closer; if you come any closer we’ll shoot!”
Since the villagers did not speak Mandarin, they could not understand the police and continued forward. Immediately, a Dai man in the front of the group named Ai Shangruan was shot multiple times by the police, and fell to the ground, dead on the scene. Ai Shangruan’s daughter, Yu Ruidan, pleaded with police, begging them to send her father to a hospital for treatment. The officers not only did not send him to the hospital but in the act of pure cruelty, opened fire on Yu Ruidan, who collapsed in shock. When Yu Ruidan’s younger brother, Ai Di, saw what was happening, he ran in front of the public security bureau officers and knelt down to beg for mercy trying to protect his older sister. The police officers have completely lost their temper and fired more than 30 consecutive rounds at the 21-year-old boy in a frenzy. He was the only local who was studying at university, and his young life was taken away.
Other villagers cried out and fled in all directions from the police, the atmosphere becoming more intense and terrifying as the villagers scattered in chaos. The armed officers were unwilling to let them off and continued to fire at them, eventually chasing them into the woods. At one point, when a villager took photos with a cellphone—an act which is against the police’s rules—they began to shoot at the individual. In total, more than ten villagers were seriously injured.
Censorship and Fake News
The CCP police’s suppression and shooting of the villagers caused a stir in neighboring villages. Thus, fearing greater public outcry, CCP officials released the Menglang Group’s five representatives from custody after 11 hours, allowing them to return home and take care of the casualties.
Afterward, provincial, city, county, and town (township) government leaders all arrived on the scene, and, fearing that a word would get out about the massacre, attempted to implement an information blockade, with armed guards on the scene preventing people from taking pictures and spreading any information about the incident at all costs. They stationed a workforce in the village, with two people per group, in charge of monitoring the movements of the victims’ families.
CCP government employees were stationed in the village for approximately one year, constantly reinforcing the message to the villagers that “the Communist Party is good, its policies are good, and the government is good.” Officials used meaningless tokens of favor to try to bribe the victims of the incident and their families by giving them small amounts of money, rice, oil, fruit, and other commodities. They also incited disputes among people in the village, manipulating villagers into conflicts and arousing hostility among them, leading many villagers to ostracize and avoid the families of the dead, to the extent that some villagers have had no dealings with the victims to this very day.
Since the 7/19 incident, villagers have taken out loans, buying back the rubber trees they had grown and taken care of for more than twenty years for prices varying from 90, 140, to 180 RMB per tree; and, to date, many of the rubber farmers still have not been able to pay off their loans.
After the tragedy, officials determined this case to be a “mass incident,” stating that the police simply came to “summon those involved in the conflict,” planning on “initiating legal advocacy and education for the villagers after completing their summoning mission,” but “they were attacked by more than 500 villagers, which led to the injuries of multiple police officers. Fearing that their lives were in serious danger after multiple attempts to dissuade the villagers to disengage, and firing warning shots, all to no avail, the police had no choice but to suppress the riot using guns for their own protection. Due to the close range of certain individuals, two died as a result.”
Authorities put full blame and responsibility for the massacre on the exploited and persecuted Dai villagers, labeling them “thugs.” The CCP officials openly stated in a press conference held after the incident that the police shooting and killing of the villagers were “reasonable self-defense,” and that they would not take disciplinary action against the officers.
According to the accounts of the people who were on the scene and experienced the tragedy in person, this was not the case. If the authorities’ goal had only been to summon and arrest the five rubber farmer representatives, then why would they need to assemble massive police forces from 40 kilometers away to rush to Meng’a village in the early hours and cut off the whole county’s Internet and phone services in advance, at the same time blockading the roads, and surrounding the village? Why do all of this, if this was only the case of police “summons”? Clearly, this bloody act of suppression in Meng’a village was premeditated—planned in advance by the police and the CCP. The message was clear: no dissent would be tolerated in China, be it in the name of freedom, religion, or social justice.
Warning: this video depicts graphic scenes and contains footage some viewers may find distressing.
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Bitter Winter plans to report on how religions are allowed, or not allowed, to operate in China and how some are severely persecuted after they are labeled as “xie jiao,” or heterodox teachings. We plan to publish news difficult to find elsewhere, analyses, and debates.
Placed under the editorship of Massimo Introvigne, one of the most well-known scholars of religion internationally, “Bitter Winter” is a cooperative enterprise by scholars, human rights activists, and members of religious organizations persecuted in China (some of them have elected, for obvious reasons, to remain anonymous).