By James Pomfret
WANGGANG, China (Reuters) - As China gears up for a leadership transition, a small fishing village that stood up to official corruption and rural land grabs has become a touchstone for other communities striving to fight back against grassroots abuses.
Since the uprising late last year in Wukan, a coastal village of 15,000 in southern China's Guangdong province that challenged and won key concessions from provincial officials, other rural communities have taken note, and in some isolated cases, sprung to action.
About 1,000 residents of Wanggang, a gritty suburb of leather factories and shabby tenement blocks, recently massed outside the gates of the Guangdong provincial capital Guangzhou, holding a rare large-scale protest striking at a major Chinese city government.
For some of them, Wukan has become a new rallying cry for their own battle against public graft.
"If China doesn't change and help ... vulnerable residents in villages, every village might develop into a Wukan," said a stocky 33-year-old surnamed Li, who took part in the rally against Wanggang's Communist Party village chief, Li Zhihang, whom they accuse of plundering land and widespread fraud.
While few expect Wukan to be a catalyst for any broader tumult across China, it is emerging as a new benchmark of rural activism in some communities, a symbol of hope for residents suffering longstanding abuses of power from corrupt local officials often in collusion with businessmen.
Guangdong province has seen its share of unrest, from strikes to riots in Zengcheng over oppressive behavior against migrant workers. The province's prominent party boss, Wang Yang, must avoid serious policy mistakes damaging his prospects for promotion in a watershed leadership transition late this year.
By invoking the name of Wukan, Wanggang villagers believe they won a swifter response from edgy officials.
"They are forcing us to take this road," Li said, giving an interview in a Wanggang hotel room for fear of putting his family at risk of reprisals.
After the villagers threatened to turn Wanggang into a "second Wukan," a Guangzhou vice mayor, Xie Xiaodan, met them and swiftly promised a probe into alleged abuses.
"He said he'd give a clear and comprehensive account to us by February 19th," said another villager, also with the family name Li, speaking in the same hotel.
Despite their bravado, Wanggang is no Wukan.
Wukan's residents were in open revolt, expelling officials and police and barricading themselves in for 10 days until provincial government intervention brought an end to the siege.
Wangang appears less united, its residents split among numerous clans. Most are city dwellers holding urban jobs, less desperate to reclaim farmland for subsistence than those in Wukan.
"WUKAN CASE UNIQUE"
An aura of suspicion and fear also pervaded Wanggang's wet markets and alleys, a marked contrast from the intense solidarity in Wukan, where villagers ransacked government offices and police stations, detained party officials and barricaded the village against riot police.
For Wukan, Wang Yang chose conciliation instead of brute force, sending a key deputy to intervene and offer concessions on seized land. In a remarkable twist, the rebel village leader Lin Zuluan, 65, was later named party secretary of Wukan.
"In terms of society, the public's awareness of democracy, equality and rights is constantly strengthening, and their corresponding demands are growing," Zhu told officials recently during a meeting about preserving social stability, the official Guangzhou Daily newspaper reported.
Despite the softer approach, some experts say Wukan will not change China's iron-fisted approach to dissent, deeply embedded in the Communist Party's control-obsessed psyche.
"The fact that Wang Yang decided to use more conciliatory methods regarding Wukan doesn't mean a change of policy on the part of Beijing, nor does it mean that leaders in other provinces will follow," said Willy Lam, an academic and veteran China watcher in Hong Kong.
"So far, it's been restricted to Guangdong ... The Wukan case is quite unique. The leaders of other provinces cannot afford to allow the Wukan case to become a sort of a model because this will damage the authority of the party, this will encourage more people to be bolder and this is something they cannot afford to allow to happen."
China's economic transformation has brought growing income disparity and a heightened risk of unrest and underlying rural strains show little sign of easing. Villagers often harbour scant faith in the courts, and barely disguise scorn toward the ability of the police to uphold justice.
Chinese experts put the number of "mass incidents," a euphemism for protests, at about 90,000 a year in recent years. Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly stressed the need for better farmer's land rights protection and collective income distribution.
On the outskirts of Wanggang, villagers showed how once verdant farmland, bursting with rice and crops, had become a giant dumpsite for construction waste.
To the north, beyond a stinking stream, a sprawling train repair depot had been built on village land, serving Guangzhou's underground mass transit railway.
Much of their ire is directed at Li Zhihang, a former soldier in his mid-thirties who became village chief in 2009. Five villagers interviewed by Reuters said he had misused his powers to lease off collective land for commercial and dumping use, siphoning off millions of yuan of proceeds.
"He allowed all these trucks to come and dump this earth that has covered our farmland. We couldn't stop him," spat an elderly farmer harvesting celery from a small lot surrounded by four-meter (12-foot) high mounds of earth and rubble.
Wanggang residents said they sued and petitioned provincial officials to intervene in vain. They said Li had a strong patronage network and a band of hired thugs from northern China, which have cast a pall of fear and intimidation over the area.
"Don't talk to me, I don't want to be beaten," said an elderly shopkeeper squinting into a television in a corner store on a road lined with small factories making shoes and handbags.
Attempts to contact Li for a comment were unsuccessful, while sources said he had not recently been seen in the village.
It remains to be seen if the Wukan siege will have lasting resonance beyond an isolated village incident. But soon after the truce was brokered in December, protesters in Haimen, a town
down the coast, invoked Wukan as a model of defiance as they clashed with riot police over a proposed new power plant.
The legacy of Wukan still echoes quietly in other villages around Wanggang. A man surnamed Huang in Luogang village complained about officials bragging about their new cars, as he dug up taro roots and spring onions in a rubbish-strewn field.
"We want to be like Wukan, all the villagers here do," said the elderly man, dressed in a black sports jacket and rolled up trousers as he squelched through the muck barefoot.
"It's very encouraging, we hope everywhere can fight back and beat the corrupt officials."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Ron Popeski)