China scurries to quell social tensions before Olympics

BEIJING — Senior leaders exhorted local officials to deal more quickly with festering social tensions that might tarnish the upcoming Olympics as censors tried to snuff out all news about a weekend riot in southern China.

Municipalities across China posted reports Monday on their official Web sites about a weekend teleconference demanding greater efforts to portray China as a stable nation around the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics.

"We should work harder and harder to ensure social stability," Yang Wenhua, the Communist Party secretary of Xianghe County in Hebei province, was quoted as saying.

Zhou Yongkang, a former public security minister who's among the ruling party's most senior leaders, addressed local officials during the teleconference.

"To ensure the smooth hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games ... we must resolve complaints and ensure social stability and harmony," said a report on the teleconference posted on the Web site of Deqing city in Zhejiang province.

"From now on, we should go on a war footing.'

More than 10,000 protesters swept through the streets of Weng'an City in Guizhou province of southern China on Saturday, setting fire to a police station and county office building to protest the death of a 15-year-old middle school student who reportedly had been in the custody of local authorities. The riots lasted nearly until dawn Sunday, witnesses said.

The Weng'an unrest is the most serious to erupt since an earthquake May 12 in Sichuan province, which killed as many as 80,000 people, made scores of schools collapse and triggered complaints of shoddy construction among angry parents. Wary that the anger might resonate elsewhere, Beijing opened an inquiry into the quality of school construction in quake-stricken areas.

Every year, thousands of demonstrations and protests roil provincial and rural China, often sparked by disputes with authorities over alleged land grabs, corruption or disregard for citizens' safety.

Officials in some provincial areas are a law onto themselves, controlling courts, allowing abuses to go unresolved and providing no effective outlet for grievances.

The unrest in Weng'an began after word spread that local thugs beat the student's uncle to death after he went to police to complain that they'd released the key suspect in his niece's murder. Many of the protesters were enraged middle school students.

The girl's body was found floating in the Ximen River on June 21.

China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, offered a three-paragraph story on the unrest Monday, saying protesters were "angered by the officials' alleged attempt to cover up a murder case of a girl student."

As reports filtered to the Internet that the girl had been raped and killed after refusing to let the son of the local security chief copy from her test for key high school entrance exams, censors deleted posts about the incident.

The unrest mirrored rioting in the Sichuan province city of Dazhu early last year, where angry residents burned down a high-rise hotel frequented by party officials after a 16-year-old hostess was found dead there, and police said that she'd died of natural causes.

Family members later charged that local security officials had raped and murdered her, then tried to cover up the death and dispose of the body.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this report.)