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A hard rain had fallen most of the night. Xu Juxian, a wiry farmer's wife with straggly black hair, said the downpour leaked copiously into the ragged tents where elderly protesters had been camping for more than two weeks. As a result, recalled Xu, they were all damp, uncomfortable and wide awake in the still hour just before dawn.
So Xu, 79, and the others immediately heard the commotion when dozens of government cars and buses wound into Huaxi beginning at 4:30 a.m. on April 10, carrying an estimated 3,000 policemen and civilians assigned to destroy the tents. To alert people in this gritty farm town that police were pouring in, watchful residents set off fireworks by the hundreds.
By the time dawn broke, up to 20,000 peasants from the half-dozen villages that make up Huaxi township had responded to the alarm, participants recounted, and they were in no mood to bow to authority. For four years, they had been complaining that industrial pollution was poisoning the land, stunting the crops and fouling the water in their fertile valley surrounded by forested hills 120 miles south of Hangzhou. And now their protest -- blocking the entrance to an industrial park -- was being put down by force.
A pitched battle erupted that soggy morning between enraged farmers and badly outnumbered police. By the end of the day, high-ranking officials had fled in their black sedans and hundreds of policemen had scattered in panic while farmers destroyed their vehicles. It was a rare triumph for the peasants, rising up against the all-powerful Communist Party government.
The confrontation was also a glimpse of a gathering force that could help shape the future of China: the power of spontaneous mass protest. Peasants and workers left behind by China's economic boom increasingly have resorted to the kind of unrest that ignited in Huaxi. Their explosions of anger have become a potential source of instability and a threat to the party's monopoly on power that has leaders in Beijing worried. By some accounts, there have been thousands of such protests a year, often met with force.