After Panjin Killing, Public Deserves to Know

There is growing public skepticism about the veracity of a government report detailing a demolition-related incident in Panjin, Liaoning province, during which a police officer killed a villager for allegedly threatening his life.

Questions revolve around why police went to the site and whether gunfire was necessary. Clouding the issue is a lack of access to information about the September 21 event and the fact that the victims’ relatives have changed their stories.

A report by the Panjin prosecutor and the government’s legal department, issued a day after the killing, said the dispute involved “a violent obstruction of police officers who were carrying out their duties.” It said officers were sent to the scene not to assist in the land-clearing and demolition at the root of the conflict, but to maintain order after Wang Shujie and his family threatened construction workers on a demolition team.

The workers were allegedly sprayed with gasoline. Police responded to emergency calls, the report said.

The official account says police officer Zhang Yan fired warning shots and used pepper spray in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the Wang family’s violent outbreak.

Zhang was injured by Wang Zaiyuan, the seventy-year-old father of Wang Shujie, the report said. The elder Wang allegedly wielded a sickle and tried to grab Zhang’s gun.

During the scuffle Zhang fired his gun, hitting the elderly man in the left leg. Afterward, the report said, Wang Shujie set himself on fire and ran toward Zhang. The officer fired several shots because he felt his life was being threatened. The burning man was struck by a bullet and died.

The media and Net users have questioned the official account. Many wonder how likely it was a seventy-year-old would ignore warning shots, try to hurt an officer with a sickle, and grab at a gun. They’ve also asked whether it was indeed necessary for Zhang to shoot Wang Shujie.

Reporters trying to gather the facts hit a wall at area hospitals that admitted Wang family members hurt in the incident. Each patient was under police control and off-limits to reporters and lawyers. Moreover, eyewitnesses were warned by authorities not to talk to anyone from outside the Panjin neighborhood.

But by putting information under tight control, authorities fueled public speculation. Indeed, the story circulating most widely in public spheres said that police had killed a villager who had been trying to stop the workers from forcibly demolishing homes in a typical, government-backed land grab on behalf of property developers.

To their credit, investigators acted promptly after the incident by responding to a range of questions, including queries over whether police had broken the law. Moreover, appropriately, a local prosecutor and not a police official was assigned to investigate the incident.

Nevertheless, the final report was released hastily, and its authors left out both key details and supporting evidence.

A key point emphasized in the official report was that the demolition was carried out legally, and that construction crew had obtained all necessary documents and official approval. The Wang family, it said, was angry not about losing their property but because they said the developer’s compensation offer was too low.

The official report said the Wang’s compensation request had been unreasonably high.

Several days after the report’s release, the documents that authorities said proved the legality of the demolition project had yet to be released to the public. And Wang Shujie’s wife told the state-run Xinhua News Agency immediately after the incident that the family had never agreed to sign over the land, for any amount.

On September 25, the government of the Xinglongtai District finally showed reporters a document allegedly detailing the agreement. It said the state-owned Xinlong farm and three members of the Wang family agreed to end the rental contract, and the family would receive a total compensation of 270,000 yuan, or 1,000 yuan per mu, paid over eighteen years. There was an extra clause in the contract that said: “Based on an oral discussion on September 3, both parties agree with this contract.” The document was stamped with the fingerprints of Wang Shulong, a brother of Wang Shujie.

But questions were raised over why a contract signed on September 3 needed an extra clause emphasizing that an oral agreement had been reached the same day. And Wang Shujie’s wife, Jiang Yang, told Xinhua after the incident that the compensation was 800 yuan per mu, below the amount cited in the contract.

Moreover, other aspects of Jiang’s story changed. Xinhua quoted her immediately after the incident, in a story published on September 24, as saying that “my paddy field was leveled by bulldozers. It’s just a couple of days before the harvest, why can’t the government wait?” But when she was interviewed later by the Beijing News, she said the dispute had been over another property.

Details about the demolition crew have varied as well. One report said police were called to help a five-member team from a utility company, but witnesses told the Beijing News nearly one hundred land-clearing workers had been on site.

Also missing from the official account are answers to questions about why and how the police role changed from mediator. In addition, the government failed to definitively determine the number of gunshots fired by Zhang to kill Wang.

The fact that officials had Wang’s body cremated just two days after the clash fanned doubts about the official account.

Back in 2011, the director of Panjin’s Xinglongtai District, Liu Shijie, was punished by provincial party and government disciplinary officials for approving a forced demolition incident that injured two people. In light of this past event, the public today deserves the information needed to be convinced that officials and police acted appropriately. So far, though, the evidence has been far from convincing.

Ren Zhongyuan is a Caixin staff reporter.

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