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Thugs try to crush pro-democracy protests in Chinese village

BEIJING—Thugs trying to crush pro-democracy protests in a village in southern China have beaten a grassroots elections expert nearly to death and are terrorizing foreign journalists who approach the village.

Events in the village of Taishi, in the prosperous Pearl River Delta region of southern China, underscore local powerbrokers' drive to crush an embarrassing recall effort against a village chief, as well as broad Communist Party efforts to quell unrest under the guise of maintaining social stability.

Political activist Lu Banglie, 34, was dragged from a taxi that was taking a journalist for Britain's newspaper The Guardian to Taishi Saturday night. People in police and army uniforms dispersed, allowing several dozen thugs to beat Lu unconscious.

In an account published Monday in The Guardian, journalist Benjamin Joffe-Walt, a native of Philadelphia, said men kicked Lu, stomped on his head and continued to beat him for 10 minutes. It said Lu lay with a stream of blood coming from his mouth, his eye out of its socket and his body limp and twisted.

The Voice of America reported that Lu said in an interview Monday that he lost consciousness during the beating and didn't wake up until the next morning. He said doctors told him he had no major injury, but he said he was in pain and felt dizzy.

Lu, an activist from central China's Hubei province, had been in the Taishi area since early August helping local villagers mount a recall campaign against a village chief accused of malfeasance. The grassroots campaign and Lu were the focus of an Aug. 25 Knight Ridder story that looked at the rising tide of discontent in China's rural areas (http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/columnists/tim(underscore)johnson/12475866.htm).

After the Knight Ridder account appeared, Lu sought out more foreign journalists to report on the tense standoff between residents and the chief in Taishi.

But a lawyer for the residents, Guo Feixiong, was quickly arrested. And in recent days, thugs began blocking foreign journalists from approaching Taishi, which is about an hour's drive from Guangzhou, China's largest city along the Pearl River. Under pressure, residents abandoned their demands for an Oct. 7 recall election.

On Friday, men wearing red armbands marked "security" stopped journalists from Hong Kong's South China Morning Post and Radio France Internationale outside Taishi and punched them, telling them they couldn't enter, the newspaper reported Monday.

"The mood had turned very ugly and I could see that they were working themselves into a frenzy," Morning Post reporter Leu Siew Ying wrote.

On Saturday night, as Lu was dragged from his taxi and battered, thugs punched Joffe-Walt and tried to pull him and his translator from the taxi, according to Joffe-Walt's published account. Later, during an interrogation in which one of the mob leaders was present, a high-ranking press official from Guangzhou, Qi Hong, told Joffe-Walt that he had tried to enter Taishi without proper permission.

Feng Songxi, a Taishi villager reached by telephone, said that after the beating, Lu "didn't come to when people poured cold water on his body" and that police took him away.

Feng said 100 outsiders had sealed off the village, and "some of them are ruthless thugs." He added that he'd heard that the village security chief, He Jingtang, "told those people, `Don't be afraid. It's OK even if you beat people to death.'"

Police in the township of Yuwotou, which surrounds Taishi, said they knew nothing of the case.

Increasingly, land speculators, industrialists and local party cadres have deployed gangs of hired thugs in rural China to squelch uprisings by peasants and factory workers demanding back pay, compensation for land or respect for other legal rights.

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(Special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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