Rebel China villagers demand elections, turn to central leaders

Reuters News
|
Posted: Dec 19, 2011 9:09 AM
Rebel China villagers demand elections, turn to central leaders

By Sui-Lee Wee

WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Protesting Chinese villagers on Sunday demanded that central leaders defuse grievances about what they called crooked land deals and a suspicious death, as a revolt that has tested Communist Party authority in this semi-rural area neared its second week.

Residents of Wukan Village in Guangdong province have driven off officials, erected makeshift barricades to deter police, and held protest gatherings and marches daily after the death in custody last weekend of Xue Jinbo, one of the organisers of a months-long campaign over former farmland that residents say was illegally seized for commercial development

Xue's death, which officials said was caused by heart failure, triggered visceral anger among the village's 10,000 residents, who believe he was abused by police.

On Sunday evening, residents vowed to take their protests into a second week unless central officials step in.

"We've completely lost trust in the local government," said one villager, a 35-year-old surnamed Wu. "They've said they will solve our problems, but it's all lies. They've cheated the ordinary people."

"We hope that the central government will give us justice," said another villager, surnamed Lin.

Police appear to be exerting their own pressure by blocking trucks from taking food into Wukan.

The swirling sentiments of the Wukan villagers -- mixing fury at the local government with hopes directed at Beijing -- underscored the volatility of the dispute and the difficulty that any officials will have in regaining their trust.

"Collusion between government and business, give me back my home," declared one of the many handwritten banners strung across the village square. "Democratic elections are the heartfelt voice of the people."

LAND AT HEART OF STANDOFF

Rural land in China is mostly owned in name by village collectives, which are in theory under leaders elected by residents. But in fact, higher officials can mandate seizing for development in return for compensation, which residents often say is inadequate and does not reflect the profits reaped.

The government of Shanwei, the area including Wukan, said this week that some Communist Party members and officials accused of misdeeds over the disputed land were detained and that the main land development project had been suspended.

But villagers' fury has turned to Xue's death and demands that officials return his body to the grieving family.

Wukan, with its clannish unity and big stake in rising land values, is an example of the kind of slow-burning discontent that is corroding party power at the grassroots.

Residents say hundreds of hectares of land was acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers. Anger in the village boiled over in September this year after repeated appeals to higher officials. Residents ransacked a government office and skirmished with police.

Protests and other bursts of what officials call "mass unrest" have risen with China's rapid economic transformation and urbanisation, which has consumed farmland, often sparking contention over compensation.

"Land is the last public good in China that can be privatized. Local governments need the land to get money to run the governments and second, local officials take the land to fill their pockets, so it's both of these issues," said David Zweig, a professor who studies Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"This problem used to happen more in the suburbs because as urbanisation expanded, they needed the land. But now it seems to be happening all over the country."

Between 1993 and recent years, the number of recorded "mass incidents" grew from 8,700 to about 90,000, according to most experts. Some estimates go higher.

Conflicts over land requisitions accounted for more than 65 percent of rural mass incidents, the China Economic Times reported earlier this year, citing survey data.

But most of these flare-ups are briefer and smaller than Wukan's, and do not attract the same international attention.

China's state-controlled media have reported sporadically on the protests, only citing official statements, and checks for "Wukan" on popular microblogging sites have been blocked, reflecting official wariness about spreading news about the confrontation.

Xue's eldest daughter Xue Jianwan, in an interview published this week by an online Hong Kong magazine, said there were signs of bruising and physical abuse on her father's body. Officials said doctors found the apparent bruising was caused by blood settling after his death, said the official Xinhua news agency.

The daughter, Jianwan, also said authorities refused initially to tell the family where her father had been taken, asking only later for his medical records.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Lee Chyen Yee in Hong Kong)