Sunday, Jun 25, 2017, 6:27 PM CST – China

Society

Yunnan Bombing

A Most Convenient Suspect

A hastily-concluded investigation into the bombing of a government building in Yunnan Province has been re-opened due to public pressure. Why aren’t local residents swallowing the official line?

The scene of the explosion on May 12, 2012 Photo by Gao Zheng

Due to China’s rigorous restrictions on firearms and explosives, bomb attacks used to be a rarity outside of the restive western regions. Since 2008, however, a spate of incidents loosely referred to as “anti-society bombings” in the official media have shaken the country. The latest, in remote Qiaojia County, Yunnan, drew particular attention after the public rejected the official explanation.

At 9:04 AM on May 10, 2012 a community-level government office in Baihetan, Qiaojia was rocked by an explosion which killed four people and injured 16. The bombing coincided with the signing of land appropriation contracts between local landowners and government officials. The victims were one local land and resources agency official, two local residents and a migrant worker.

Unlikely Terrorist

Soon after the bombing, the public began to voice suspicions that the attack was deliberately designed to target local residents and officials involved in the sale of land, a issue which has led to widespread forced evictions across the country. Opposition to rural land appropriation has taken many forms, from public demonstrations and self-immolations to individual armed resistance.

Suspicions were fueled by statements from local police claiming the bomber was “taking revenge on society.” A mere 24 hours after the bombing, the local police bureau announced that they had cracked the case, and identified the perpetrator as Zhao Dengyong, the 26-year-old migrant worker killed in the explosion.

Displaying remarkable insight into the personality of their chief suspect, the police statement read: “Taking into account his eccentric personality and tendency to extreme points of view, as well as his pessimistic and world-weary attitude toward life, Zhao had cultivated a strong hatred of society.”

“The blast had nothing to do with the ongoing land appropriation,” the statement concluded.

Three days later, the police released closed-circuit television footage from the building as evidence confirming Zhao’s guilt. In the footage, Zhao carried a backpack into the office lobby at 9:03 AM after lingering at the door for about four minutes. He stood aside for several residents waiting to sign their land appropriation contracts, and the explosion occurred one minute later.

According to local police chief Yang Chaowei, Zhao’s backpack contained the bomb used in the attack. “The bomb was made of raschite and was triggered by Zhao himself,” said Yang in an official media statement. “I’d stake my position as police chief, and my career, on his guilt.”

The police went on to cite excerpts from Zhao’s blog dating back to January 2010 as further proof of his guilt. “Since I was nine, the rogues have been bullying me... But I want to tell them that when a person is cornered and gets desperate, he will do anything in spite of the consequences,” read one such excerpt. The police also provided a journal which they claimed had been written by Zhao when he was in senior high school.

“I have mental defects... and sometimes tend to go to extremes,” read the journal, eerily echoing the assessment released earlier by police investigators.

Local residents didn’t buy the official explanation, and the police soon had to face public accusations that they had failed to produce any hard evidence to prove Zhao’s guilt beyond a few blog extracts written years previously.

Zhao’s family spearheaded the fightback. According to his elder brother Zhao Dengxi, Zhao had never kept a journal, nor did he harbor a “hatred for society.” Growing up in a mountain village 140 kilometers from the site of the bombing, Zhao had chosen to work in Qiaojia as it was relatively close to his native village and would mean he could care for his elderly parents as his other siblings worked as laborers in townships hundreds of miles away. Zhao was, by all accounts, happily married, and had a two-year-old son. No explosive materials or related devices were found at his home.

Zhao’s motives were also called into question, with some alleging that even if Zhao’s backpack had contained a bomb he may have been unaware of the fact. His supporters argued that, as Zhao was working part-time as a motorcycle deliveryman, he may have been set up by a “client,” unwittingly carrying a bomb into the government building while believing he was simply making another delivery.

Tinder Box

Constant assurances that land appropriation had nothing to do with the bombing, and the convenience of the only suspect’s death in the attack, mushroomed into accusations of a police cover-up. Land appropriation has been going on in Qiaojia County on a massive scale for several years, resulting in a number of violent clashes between developers and local residents refusing to be evicted from their homes. Only six days prior to the bomb attack, Yang Yuqiang, a local villager, burned his motorcycle in front of the same building to protest the land appropriation project.

Three weeks earlier, Ding Chaofa, a villager from Laodian township, was allegedly beaten to death while resisting his forced eviction. In September 2011, when local authorities sent bulldozers to flatten the home of Zheng Yongjiang, a local villager, Zheng poured gasoline over himself and a bulldozer driver in an attempt to self-immolate. He was later charged with endangering public security and received a three-year jail term.

The latest project, which locals claimed the bombing was designed to target, was particularly notorious inthe region. The local government was only offering compensation for a maximum of 150 square meters of land per household, regardless of the size of each plot. Moreover, homes with a total interior space of 60 to 100 square meters only received compensation for 80 square meters. 1,081 yuan (US$170) per square meter, one-third of the standard local rate for residential property, was offered to claimants as compensation, which had led to further outrage against the local government.

In an attempt to lure and coerce householders into signing compensation contracts, the government offered an “early bird bonus” to claimants who appeared at the Qiaojia government building to sign contracts from May 10 to 15, adding that anyone who didn’t show would only be eligible to receive monetary compensation, with the land compensation forfeited. 

The bomb attack coincided precisely with the first signings on May 10, a coincidence too remarkable to overlook, at least in the view of local residents.

Faced with a growing outcry and wide coverage by national media, local police backtracked, claiming that they had named Zhao Dengyong as a “preliminary” suspect, and that they were investigating the “potential involvement of other parties.” Zhao’s family, now caring for his widow and young son, are continuing the fight to clear his name.

Whoever was behind the attack, it seems to have served its purpose, as the land appropriation contract signings appear to have been put on hold indefinitely.

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