Up to 70,000 in clashes with security forces

Published in Chinaworker, July 13, 2009

The June 17 death of Tu Yuangao, a 24 year old chef at the Yunglong Hotel in Shishou, Hubei Province, sparked several days of protests involving up to 70,000 people and what essentially amounted to an occupation of the city. Shishou is a city of 620,000. According to the June 23 issue of the online French magazine “The Observers” Shishou residents have been enraged over the suspicious death of Tu. This sparked three days of unrest, creating what has been called the most serious mass incident since the Weng’an ,Guizhou rioting in 2008 involving up to 50,000 people. 

According to the “The Observers” Tu Yuangao’s body was found outside the Yunglong Hotel on 17 June. The owners of the hotel claim suicide, saying Tu jumped from the third story of the hotel. According to Tu’s parents Tu’s body shows bruises and blood clots but not in the area of supposed impact from a fall. The blood clots in the nostrils and ears looked suspicious, with no sign of blood where the body came to rest.  Two years ago another death occurred in the Yunglong Hotel involving a female employee who died in a similar manner.

News of the incident quickly spread via the Internet and text messaging. Photos of the body were also posted. According to China Daily the hotel was widely believed by locals to be a major distribution center for illegal drugs .The owner of the hotel is believed to be the head of a large drug cartel with a close relationship to local officials. Rumors quickly spread that Tu was told his salary would not be paid. Tu was then murdered when he threatened to expose the drug dealing operation. Further rumors spread online that Tu had been brutally beaten, then castrated before being killed.

According to” The Observers” the local police ruled that the death was a suicide and ordered the family to cremate the body. The hotel owner offered Tu’s family 30,000 RMB in compensation for the supposed suicide. A local funeral parlor was ordered to refuse to rent a refrigerated coffin to Tu’s family. Tu’s father was so outraged by this that he threatened to blow himself up with a gas canister if his son’s body was tampered with. A large contingent of police and security personal were brought in. Residents of Shishou were told that police were being brought in to suppress gangsters and members of Falun Gong 
On 19 June at 1am police cars and funeral vehicles came to take Tu Yuangao’s body but were stopped by a crowd of over 2,000 people blocking the hotel entrance .The crowd continued to grow throughout the morning. Rumors  spread that local government officials would seize the body at 5am. At 8am the police made another attempt to take the body. This resulted in fighting and emotional confrontations between residents and the police. News continued to spread via the Internet. Residents began gathering. Eventually a crowd of between 7,000 and 10,000 residents blockaded the hotel and the main roads into the city.

The police were outnumbered and for a time the crowds took control of the situation. The police were pushed back. Around 1pm another wave of confrontations began as people began throwing beer bottles and bricks at the police in order to prevent them from stealing the body. Funeral cars and police cars were smashed and police were chased away from the vicinity of the hotel. Around 3pm the police staged yet another attempt to seize the body. According to China Hush the crowd swelled to over 40,000 people. On the evening of June 20, more police and security personal were deployed. Street battles between residents and police continued through to the early morning of the 21st. Many police cars were destroyed and the police were again chased away from the hotel area. Crowds set fire to the Yunglong Hotel. Around 200 people zere reportedly injured during the clashes.

To control the situation Internet cafes in the city were shut down and street lights around the hotel were turned off. From June 19 to 21 Tu’s body remained in the hotel. The police were finally able to force their way into the hotel , parts of which were still burning, around 8am on June 21, and seize the body 
China Daily and other mainland based publications say police found a suicide note, but Tu’s family and town residents dispute this. An article in China Daily, said that used needles were found on the ground outside  the hotel. What appear to be anonymous Shishou residents posted onmine say that the unrest represented much built up frustration against local corruption and oppression. Government officials said two autopsies had been performed on the body of Tu in the presence of the family, confirming his death was a suicide. Tu’s body was cremated at 4am on June 25. The government promised Tu Yuangao’s family compensation amounting to 80,000 RMB.

This major incident takes place as a debate rages in Chinese media including the Xinhua News Agency concerning the government’s new propaganda technique, called “Control 2.0” . According to the article some officials believe the government needs to increase its intiative to more effectively convey official  views. Whatever the propaganda spin provincial and national Chinese governments put on the Shishou Incident, it is emblematic of the massive corruption effecting all levels of Chinese society and the increasing frustration and rage this is creating.