Feng Zhimin was waiting for a bus last week in a village near the southern city of Guangzhou when a sudden explosion across the street almost knocked him off his feet.
“It was so powerful that the windows were blown in and glass scattered everywhere. No one dared to go near the building [after the blast].
“I later saw a woman and a man being taken out [of the building] and they appeared to be dead,” said the 40-year-old, who escaped without injury. “People were really frightened and there was a lot of smoke. It was very scary.”
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Last Monday’s attack on the village committee office in Mingjing in the southern province of Guangdong was blamed on a lone individual who was angered by officials’ handling of a property dispute.
The authorities say the 59-year-old, identified only by his surname Hu, was one of five people killed in the blast, which also wounded five others.
But few other details of the attack have been made public, including the names of the victims, and local journalists say they have been told not to report the case. Repeated calls to Panyu district police for comment were not answered.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, there was little discussion about it, although a blogger named Sakura said the incident had happened because the authorities had ignored complaints from villagers.
Although such incidents are rare – not least because of the tight levels of control the authorities maintain and the difficulty in getting hold of explosives or firearms – observers say the underlying tensions that prompted this attack are common at a grass-roots level, with many residents complaining that the authorities do not provide them with a channel to resolve their grievances.
Shi Xining, a Beijing-based lawyer who specialises in land dispute cases, said conflicts among villagers and village committees over land and properties were common, especially when the local authorities wanted to requisition land or press for more development.
While there were remedies available in case of dispute, legal channels were often out of reach for the ordinary people, Shi said.
“There are few avenues for redress but administrative litigation is too difficult and costly for ordinary people because you are not sure if you will win or lose,” he said.
Wu Yangwei, a Guangzhou-based democracy activist, said most people embroiled in disputes of this nature were unlikely to resort to legal action because it was expensive and had a low chance of success. The cheaper alternative, petitioning the higher authorities for help, was also likely to prove ineffective.
Wu expects more conflicts of this kind in future as local authorities across the country press ahead with urban redevelopment plans while the real estate markets in most major cities are stuck in the doldrums.
“Similar conflicts will certainly happen again since the disgruntled public can either submit or take revenge [when they feel they have been mistreated],” Wu said. “These problems will remain a hidden threat to the authorities.”
Maintaining social stability has been identified as a top priority for officials and law enforcement in the run-up to the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations later this year, further reducing the scope for protests to the authorities.
Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based political scientist and former lecturer at Tsinghua University in the capital, echoed the concern that people were not getting the chance to protect their interests.
“With the use of big data and other hi-tech tools, the authorities are able to strengthen governance over the masses and grass-roots individuals are in a disadvantageous position in fighting for their interest because there are now fewer channels for them to find help,” Wu said.