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2,000 riot in poor Chinese city

Anger erupts over government plans to raze a downtown area. Sixty officials are reportedly injured.

November 19, 2008|John M. Glionna | Glionna is a Times staff writer.

BEIJING — An angry crowd of about 2,000 rioted in China's impoverished Gansu province over a government plan to demolish a downtown area, torching cars and attacking a local Communist Party office, injuring 60 officials, state-run media reported Tuesday.

The violence 700 miles southwest of Beijing was one of the most marked instances of social unrest to grip China in recent months. It was sparked by government plans to relocate the city of Longnan's administrative center after May's devastating earthquake, according to the New China News Agency.

At one point, rioters met a surging wall of armed police officers with a hail of rocks, bricks, bottles and flowerpots. The crowd later confronted police with iron bars, axes and hoes as protesters tried to hijack a firetruck and smashed windows and office equipment in two government buildings.

The state-run press has reported on numerous picketings and demonstrations that have broken out across China in recent weeks, including a two-day strike by disgruntled taxi drivers in the city of Chongqing, about 300 miles south of Longnan.

Activists warn that tensions over the sudden downturn in the Chinese economy could provoke similar public outbursts, even though police have made efforts not to immediately resort to violence in quelling the riots.

Chinese economists say that rising wages throughout China have led many laborers to expect better working conditions and residents to demand a more accountable government.

"The local government has become the front line of conflict," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "But there is no channel to allow people to express their will. They lack the right to speak, the right to organize and unionize to represent their interest, therefore they can only use an irrational way by demonstrating or rioting to solve problems."

But government officials recently began to forgo a decades-old policy of swift repression to meet public demonstrations. Following their strike, Chongqing taxi drivers were able to air their grievances in a three-hour meeting with government officials that was available online across China.

The melee in Longnan began when about 30 angry residents gathered Monday outside the party office, but the crowd soon grew much larger, New China News reported.

He Zhouwa, manager of a brick factory, said people were ready to use any means possible to stop the government plan to relocate the city center.

"People are still at the municipal party office compound," he said late Tuesday. "I did not dare to go there, but everyone is talking about this. There were hundreds of petitioners there last night and this morning."

A Longnan city government statement said the protesters, many of whom had come to petition government officials over the loss of their homes and land, were "incited by a few people with ulterior motives."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Times news assistant Eliot Gao in Beijing contributed to this report.

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