Trouble in River City

People get very emotional when the story involves children. It’s a trigger that sets off a chain reaction. So I recommend that China’s spinners go into advanced crisis control mode. If you have to kill the villagers, try to avoid killing children.

A week of protests by villagers in China’s southern industrial heartland exploded into violence over the weekend with thousands of police officers brandishing automatic weapons and using electric batons to put down the rally, residents of the village said today.

As many as 60 people were injured, residents of Panlong village said, and at least one person, a 13-year-old girl, had been killed by security forces, they said. The police denied any responsibility, saying that the girl had died of a heart attack.

Residents of Panlong, about an hour’s drive from the capital of Guangdong Province, said the police had chased and beaten protesters and bystanders alike, and that locals had retaliated by smashing police cars and mounting hit-and-run attacks, throwing rocks at security forces….

“The police arrived at 8 p.m., and then started beating people from 9 p.m., trying to disperse the crowd,” said a schoolteacher who spoke by telephone, giving her name only as Yang. “When this happened, the crowd got very angry and lots of people picked up stones on the ground and threw them at the policemen. After being attacked, policemen were furious, they just beat up everyone, using their batons.”

I haven’t been to China in a few months. Is it common for teenage girls to drop dead of heart attacks?

The article’s screamng headline, now all over the Internet, proclaims, “Girl, 13, Dies as Police Battle Chinese Villagers.” Whenever I do crisis management training, I warn the executives to always look out for any possible harm to children that the press can accuse them of. It works like a charm – instant bad publicity. (Will, do you want to back me up on this?)

Rule No. 2: If you do mess up and kill children, don’t lie about it. It’ll be exposed, and you’ll be even worse off PR-wise. I’m sending the CCP my resume. They need help.

UPDATE: Headine changed:
Police in China Battle Villagers in Land Protest

The Discussion: 23 Comments

The girl died of a heart attack?!?!!? She suddenly developed such an advanced state of cardiac arrest just coincidentally enough while the state was shooting her family. Can’t blame the state for that…
They don’t do that in Bush’s America, at least.

January 16, 2006 @ 6:46 pm | Comment

Panlong is Dongzhou

I was wrong. I thought the New Year’s holiday would mean fewer public protests and demonstrations. But I just learned of the violence in Panlong, a village in Guangdong province near the city of Zhongshan, in which local people

January 16, 2006 @ 6:51 pm | Comment

Yes, I’d say that there are few things an organization (or individual) can do to get themselves into trouble faster than inflicting harm or appearing to inflict harm on children. Human beings have an instinctive protective reaction when it comes to children, and we judge actions perpetrated against them differently than we judge those perpetrated against adults. It’s a different level of taboo. Notoriously, prison inmates are famously hard on their fellows who have been convicted of crimes against children. Everyone needs someone to look down upon. This is also why the threatening of children is so provocative. Think of Beslan, in Russia. Of course, sufficient propaganda or social disintegration can lift that taboo. Think of the Holocaust, Rwanda in the ’90s, Indonesia in the ’60s, etc.

Certainly people on all sides of public relations battles are aware of the significance of harm to children. One particularly depressing example is the emphasis on child and female casualties by people on the receiving end of bombing campaigns or occupations. It is awful when *anyone* is killed, but if you really want to rally support, point out how “innocent women and children” have been killed. I put that phrase into quotations not because women and children aren’t innocent (they usually are, and many men are too), but because the expression is a widely used cliche, especially of military and occupation communication. Innocent is used as an emotionally-charged synonym for “noncombatant”. If you want a real lesson in this, Google “innocent women and children” (in the quotation marks) and browse the results.

It’s also worth noting that citing child casualties in headlines is great for driving eyes to news stories, which is one reason why it is such a PR disaster. That’s why, whenever there are claims of child casualties, it is useful to really scrutinize for agendas. I note that the headline of the NYT story is sensational and legally proper at the same time, since it doesn’t commit to who is responsible for the girl’s death. “Girl dies as…” She could have been hit by a meteor or eaten by a tiger during the disturbance for all we actually know. And the story itself is far from conclusive. But the sub-editor who wrote the headline damn well knew it would get us to read (I read it this morning). Also, it wouldn’t surprise me if the villagers of Panlong knew that a child’s death would be a lightning rod for attention, and made sure to mention it in their discussions with Mr. French. (Although without knowing the actual line of questioning, that’s supposition; he might have had to ask “was anyone killed?”)

Now, that dispassionate analysis doesn’t change the fact that there is every chance that this girl was killed by security forces. Angry cops swinging batons and flying bullets are notoriously general. As Richard says, 13-year olds aren’t prone to heart attacks (although it’s not unheard of — a college friend of mine who wasn’t much older than that died of a heart attack because she had a congenital heart defect). If this was a police force in the US or Europe, the immediate result would be an open, public inquiry and, if there were no mitigating circumstances, punishment of the people responsible, which is one of the few ways to defuse such a situation. (Example of mitigating circumstances: the Florida police force that recently shot a child publicly displayed the Airsoft pistol he was brandishing next to a real pistol to show that they look nearly identical.)

But, of course, this is China. Ultimately, the people to whom this death ought to matter most –Chinese citizens with an interest in the actions of their government– will probably not hear about it, so the need for a PR response will likely be moot. Instead, the propaganda mechanism may do the job by ensuring that the story isn’t reported domestically. In that case, all that will be left is one angry village and a bunch of outraged foreigners.

But we can hope. I would be thrilled to see coverage in China.

Richard, that’s probably more than you wanted, but it’s an interesting issue.

January 16, 2006 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

Stop the presses: It’s all Kim Jong-il’s fault:
“The protests coincided with a reported visit to the area by the North Korean president, Kim Jong Il. The secretive leader’s visit, though never publicly confirmed by Beijing, was widely rumored, and some residents said it may have contributed to the nervousness of the security forces.”

January 16, 2006 @ 7:27 pm | Comment

I note more coverage, including more details on the girl’s death (struck by electric baton, allegedly) in ESWN’s press roundup:

Some of the Chinese language press cites the girl’s death, but it looks like HK media, not mainland.

January 16, 2006 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

The local paper, the Zhongshan Daily, has officially sanctioned reports of the incident. No protestors died, the police were the ones suffering the injuries by these accounts.

BTW, the girl was apparently 15 not 13, and her relatives were quite possibly paid to shut up, so the truth will never be fully clarified, just like so many other incidents where red envelopes insure silence or lies.

January 16, 2006 @ 8:49 pm | Comment

Dylan, is anyone surpriseed? Thanks for the update, and isn’t it time you started a blog? It would be one of the very best in China, if it didn’t get you arrested.

Will, a stellar comment, as usual. Yes, the death probably won’t resonate much in China due to the censors (though you never know, what with the blogs’n’all), but don’t you think China should also do more about its international media relations? Don’t they know that telling the press the girl died of a heart attack automatically raises eyebrows and sets off the BS-o-meter?

January 16, 2006 @ 11:14 pm | Comment

Depending on what kind of trauma was inflicted on her (somatic or psychological or both; my guess is both), she COULD HAVE died from heart failure, ie as the final cause of death. That, in itself, isn’t so unlikely.

Question is, what caused it? The most likely explanation (Occam’s razor) is not that she had a bad heart, but that the police traumatised her in some way.

In any case, little girls dropping dead in public during police beatings, is prima facie evidence that the police acted like savages.

January 16, 2006 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

Meanwhile, the Times has updated its headline. See my update in the post. Story still says it was a 13-year-old girl.

January 16, 2006 @ 11:36 pm | Comment

Good point Richard. I think international media relations is one of the Chinese government’s great failings. Another cliche is the one in the report about China where the foreign journalist is ejected by goons from whatever village/district/swamp he or she is trying to cover.

Of course, one problem is that the central government and provincial or local governments don’t always necessarily agree on how to handle the media or communication around certain events.

On balance, I don’t think the idea of “media relations” has penetrated the Chinese government. I think the paradigm of “media control”, which is the legacy of forty-odd years of party control of essentially all media, still applies. Remember we’re only about a decade into commercial media here. And when you think you have control, you don’t need relations (companies having runs of success make the same mistake sometimes).

Of course, that’s the government’s loss. The control mechanism works domestically –although much less well than it once did I would guess, thanks to proliferation of other means of communication– but it’s a complete shambles internationally. The result is loss of credibility and a complete absence of goodwill that will hurt in ways the Chinese government doesn’t expect (such as when support for pro-China policies needs to be built in other countries).

It will be interesting to see what the government does when the Olympics roll around, and tens of thousands of foreign journalists are running around, looking for back-story.

January 17, 2006 @ 12:56 am | Comment

Absolutely inexcusable behavior. A similar incident happened in Dong zhou last month. I hope to hell that future protestors exercise Gandhi-style non-violence and zero retaliation– though none of them deserved this ridiculous treatment, Chinese protestors lose credibility when they retaliate like they did both in Pan long and Dong zhou. It just gives CCTV and Xin hua an excuse to say that the protestors “rioted.”

This is why the majority of the Chinese public idiotically thinks that the Tian an men protestors “got what they deserved”– simply because the Chinese media and authorities still claim that those 1989 protestors “rioted” and were therefore killed.

Clearly-defined, non-retaliatory protesting will help these assemblies swing true international attention toward China– its police forces have been getting away with its human rights violations for far too long.

It’s time for China to get a MLK-style non-violent strongman for social justice…even if it’s a “foreigner” who simply wants to see China improve.

January 17, 2006 @ 12:58 am | Comment

Will, that’s what you’re there for – to turn it all around. Good luck. And good point about the Olympics – they have such high hopes for it, but could end up disappointed. They’re not used to being over-run with zillions of scoop-seeking journalists.

January 17, 2006 @ 1:57 am | Comment

The other wild card in 2008 – the other very unpredictable factor – will be the potential for unruly Chinese Nationalists to start rioting whenever their teams don’t win.

January 17, 2006 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Possible scenarios for the Beijing Olympics:

American swimmer beats Chinese by a hair. “AGGH! It’s an American plot! The Judges are all against us!
The world is disrespecting China!”

Japanese team beats Chinese team in some major event: Riots in the stadium, worldwide horror.

January 17, 2006 @ 2:30 am | Comment

PS, I mean, throughout history, the Chinese have never, never, never been good sportsmanlike losers. In ANY kind of competition.

January 17, 2006 @ 2:33 am | Comment

I agree that the Olympics will be a fascinating time for reasons not related to the games.

I’ve long wondered about the votes that saw Beijing get the nod in 2001. It’s easy to believe that in a quiet room somewhere China made ‘promises’ in return for support. Given that issues like Tiananmen are certain to be revisited in 2008 by the unimaginably (for China) large presence of foreign media, is it not possible that the Chinese government have agreed to a little more openess before the games begin? A bit fanciful, perhaps.

How about this scenario. Taiwan declares itself an independent state on the eve of the games and is immediately threatened with retribution by Beijing. Will the Americans then pledge to withdraw its team unless Beijing adopts a more conciliatory tone? China has set its heart and its wallet to winning more gold medals than the USA in 2008. I guess she would bite her lip and invade afterwards.

Or this. The Japanese team’s flagbearer enters the stadium the day after China Daily reports that his grandfather was an officer in Nanjing during the war. Will this necessitate barbed-wire fencing to contain the crowd?

Yep! It’s going to be a great games.

January 17, 2006 @ 2:58 am | Comment

It brings to mind the old maxim, “Careful what you wish for…”

Beijing’s selection for the Olympics in 2001 was the reason I moved to Beijing – I thought it was the dawn of a new day and proof that the world was China’s oyster. We all know China’s made enormous strides, but the fact remains that Beijing still isn’t quite ready for prime time (in terms of infrastructure, sanitation, conveniences). I really do wish them the best, but hope they are prepared for the worst. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised when, a few days before the crowds start arriving, they round up all the activists and put them in jail (for their own safety, of course).

January 17, 2006 @ 3:23 am | Comment

Oh please don’t even suggest America withdrawing from the Olympics. Takes me back to when America boycotted Moscow’s Olympics of 1980. It was stupid then and it would be just as stupid in 2008.

Even in 1980, the USSR was far more open than the Americans believed (or were told.) Even in the last years of Brezhnev, it was only a matter of time before the Russians would face the inevitable and withdraw from Eastern Europe. (Poland was already moving toward independence in 1980, and even under Brezhnev the Russians did not clamp down on Poland too hard – not like they did in Budapest 1956 or Prague in 1968. Even in 1980, the Russians didn’t send tanks to Poland – they already knew that the end of the Soviet Empire was coming soon.)

In 1980, WHAT was America’s reason for boycotting the Moscow Olympics? Afghanistan. America was protesting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was the most STUPID reason imaginable, to boycott the Moscow Olympics….

…what we America SHOULD have done in 1980, should have been to seize the opportunity to make a (farsighted) strategic alliance with Russia against the Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. 1980 SHOULD HAVE been an opportunity for America and Russia to begin cooperating, to fight the REAL enemy of our times, the rising tide of Islamic Fundamentalism.

In 1980, if Carter had any sense, he (and stupid Brezshinski, however his Polish name is spelled – oh and by the way I think his Polish background contributed to his hostility to Russia, Poland is an OLD enemy of Russia) – the US COULD have seized an opportunity to make a mutually beneficial deal with the Russians: You Russians get out of Eastern Europe, and we Americans will SUPPORT you in your war in Afghanistan.

25 years later, our American troops are dying in Afghanistan, being killed by the terrorists whom we (under Carter) helped to create in the 1980s.

The Cold War should have been over by the 1970s or even earlier.
Stupid Carter just dragged it out AND made it even worse. In 1980, Iran was humilating America WHILE Afghanistan began to humiliate Russia – and if we had any sense we should have joined forces then, to start fighting the REAL enemies.

Carter. I’m a Democrat, and my dad was a democratic politician, but I even remember my Dad saying, “Somebody ought to shoot Carter”. Carter provoked my deeply Democratic father to vote for Reagan in 1980. And, much as I hate Reagan and his legacy, actually I say my dad was right about that.
Carter was a disgrace. Carter’s games in Afghanistan led directly to the situation now – and he has a lot of American blood on his hands.

(A disclaimer – as some of you know, I have many Russian friends and connections, some of whom fought in the Afghanistan War of the 1980s. Yes, personally I sympathise with them – but I still think I’m right about how America missed an opportunity to END the Cold War EARLIER, and to make a new alliance with Russia against the REAL enemies of our time. If we had joined forces with Russia in 1980, then Iran and Afghanistan could have been brought to heel a generation ago.)

We really f—ed that one up and even made it worse.

January 17, 2006 @ 5:57 am | Comment

PS, to clarify my last comment:

In 1980, America’s main threat was NOT from any potential Russian invasion of Western Europe. The Kremlin was already trying to invent ways to withdraw from Eastern Europe (where it was overextended and had no vital interests, except for a stale old standoff with NATO which had really become obsolescent)

And it’s no good to say that Russia’s nuclear arsenal posed the greatest danger to America in 1980 – because Russia STILL has thousands of nukes aimed at America. The only thing that changed, is that both sides stopped threatening each other over the division of Europe. The nukes are still there.

No, in 1980, the main threat to America AND to Russia was from the Islamic fanatics. Russian “Communism” was essentially dead by 1980 – in fact it was essentially dead after Stalin died. Russia’s MAIN strategic interest, by 1980 (after the Cold War had stabilised) was its ancient interest in defending itself from the South and the East.

So it remains today, and if any future American leaders have any sense, they will make a closer alliance with Russia against the Islamic fanatics – as we SHOULD have done in 1980.

January 17, 2006 @ 6:06 am | Comment


Sorry – I didn’t intend to raise painful memories. I recall the nonsense of 1980 as well. On that occasion the boycott by America and others met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Kremlin.

However, demonstrating to the world (USA in particular) that they are superior seems disturbingly important to the Chinese. For this reason I believe that a threat to deny China such an opportunity in 2008 would carry far more weight, notwithstanding the commercial importance of an American presence.

I don’t feel it’s beyond the realm of possibility for a threat to withdraw to be used as a political tool. If such a threat subsequently led to a boycott, Sino-US relations would inevitably hit a new low.

January 17, 2006 @ 8:06 am | Comment

Put it like this – if the US were to threaten boycotting the games, it is highly likely that it would be due to a situation so serious that other countries would do the same. Sure some countries would still go whatever happened, but the games would be a complete sham.

The US wouldn’t boycott on a whim, as it would want the support of other countries.

January 17, 2006 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

I say, the Games are more than 2 years away from now, so this is not going to lead us anywhere beyond plain imagination. By that time, and with all that is going on in China (and in the rest of the world, that is getting more and more hooked on China actually), we might be in an entirely different ballgame. However, if times in China would worsen and boycott talk would hit the streets, I will not be looking to the US to have an indication on how China is perceived on the worldscene, as anyway it is likely to be perceived by non-Americans (as myself) as another
way to strike a competitor. The US for me has blown it, as a thought-leader on worldscale (too much shouting on freedom and democracy, and always less and less to show for). If other, smaller countries, would step up and pull out though, then that would be for me a strong signal that China is in serious problems.

January 17, 2006 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

Actually it turns out that the girl is 15.

SCMP has had running commentary over these protests since Saturday morning which means that this hasn’t been just one skirmish, but several on succeeding nights.

January 17, 2006 @ 9:06 pm | Comment

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