China villagers in police standoff plan big march

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2011 9:13 AM
China villagers in police standoff plan big march

Protesters in a southern Chinese village who have driven local authorities from the area said Monday they plan to march to a nearby town if four of their representatives are not released by police.

While the residents of Wukan in Guangdong province have held rallies almost daily over the past week, the protests have largely been confined to the village square. A march out of the village could escalate tensions over a land dispute and pose a direct challenge to police who have set up checkpoints on main roads to the village.

"We want the detainees to be released, we want the farmland to be returned, and we want the corrupt officials who took bribes to be fired," said villager Huang Hancan, one of the representatives of the village of nearly 20,000 people.

Wukan has for months been the site of simmering protests driven by residents who say their farmland was sold by local officials to developers without their consent. The current unrest was sparked by the detention of five villagers by police more than a week ago and the Dec. 11 death of one of them in police custody. Authorities say the man died from cardiac failure but his supporters believe he was beaten.

Wary of being portrayed as unpatriotic in a country with a strong nationalistic bent, the protesters have in recent days emphasized that their anger is directed at local officials and not Communist Party rule. During rallies attended by thousands, they've shouted "Long live the central government" in an appeal for higher authorities to intervene in the land dispute.

During a rally Monday, protesters held up banners saying "Wukan people have been wronged," Huang said in a telephone interview. "The villagers are very angry, because the authorities have not shown any sincerity," he said.

But signs of a split in the community have emerged in the last several days, with protesters estimating that dozens of villagers have joined government supporters who were offering food in exchange for their support.

The unrest has received little coverage in China's state-controlled media, and censorship on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog has been tight, with searches for the village's name and other related terms blocked.

But the news appeared to be attracting more attention on the microblog site as a number of prominent intellectuals have posted comments and photos about the unrest. These updates have been reposted thousands of times, the site showed Monday.

With a booming economy, demand for land to build factories and housing complexes in China has soared. Land disputes have grown apace, becoming one of the leading causes of the tens of thousands of large-scale protests that hit China every year.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong