Absolutely revolting

Why Wukan is in the spotlight

Absolutely revolting

A poster showing Xue Jinbo, who died in police custody last month

Public frustration with seizure of farmland is nothing new in China, where local governments have long been accused of grabbing plots from villagers with little compensation. But the clashes in Wukan last month were unusual – for their longevity and the scale of the protests.

The residents of Wukan, a small fishing village with a population of 11,000 in Guangdong province, have been protesting since September against the sale of land by local officials. The dispute began when the local government sold a village-owned pig farm to Country Garden, a Hong Kong-listed property developer, for $156 million. The proffered compensation per acre, villagers said, was barely enough to buy a new bed.

But the protest escalated into riots last month after the local government announced that Xue Jinbo, a villager who led the negotiations with the government, had died in police custody. Authorities said the 43 year-old had succumbed to a heart attack. But his family claimed that Xue was beaten to death. After all, local officials appeared to have a motive for killing him. For years Xue had organised fellow villagers in protests against the government’s failure to compensate them for appropriated land.

A local police investigation denied foul play. “We assume the handcuffs left the marks on his wrists and his knees were bruised slightly when he knelt,” Luo Bin, deputy chief of the Zhongshan University forensics medical centre, explained to Xinhua.

Word of Xue’s death quickly brought the villagers onto the streets. They chased leading local bureaucrats out of town – and then the police fled the scene too. For two weeks villagers maintained roadblocks to block security forces from entering the area, and stockpiled homemade weapons, including steel-tipped bamboo spears.

Residents complain that officials had been stealing land since the late 1990s, when they began selling off farm acreage for industrial parks and apartment complexes. Villagers say more than 1,000 acres have been seized and resold, while they were kept in the dark. “From 1993 onward, not one time were we told,” says Lin Zuluan, a protest leader. “No voting, no compensation, nothing. We didn’t even know what was going on.”

Wukan is not an isolated case: of the tens of thousands of peasant protests that occur every year in China, nearly half relate to land grabs, says Caijing magazine.

The Wukan protests finally came to a halt when Wang Yang, the up-and-coming Communist Party Secretary of Guangdong, flew to the fishing village and cut a deal to replace the local authorities, as well as call a halt on the specific transactions that provoked the conflict.

Wang admitted that villagers had reason to complain. “This is the result of conflicts that accumulated over a long time in the course of economic and social development. We should take the problem into serious consideration and take effective measures to solve it,” he was quoted as saying.

Premier Wen Jiabao then weigh ed-in on the issue too: “China can no longer sacrifice farmers’ land rights for the sake of reducing the cost of urbanisation and industrialisation,” he said last week.

Though the troubles in Wukan seem to be over, critics wonder whether they might be the beginning of a new phase of protest. In 2010, there were as many as 180,000 outbursts of what sociologists locally describe as “mass incidents”: strikes, sit-ins, rallies and violent clashes. Government figures from the mid-1990s put the number of such episodes at fewer than 10,000, and the New York Times reckons there are at least 625,000 potential ‘Wukans’ across China, suffering the types of injustice that prompted the outburst of the rebellious village.

In an editorial, Caixin Weekly also warned that the protests in Wukan highlighted deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. “Transformation of the pattern of governance is at the heart of this change,” it suggested.

Amid all of the protests, at least the town can count on Zheng Yanxiong, Party Secretary of the city territory that encompasses Wukan, for a bit of light relief.

During a session with reporters, Zheng ranted: “There’s only one group of people who really experience added hardships year after year. Who are they? Cadres, that’s who. Me included.”

Zheng’s complaint was that life was getting much more difficult for local bureaucrats: “Your powers decline every day, and you have fewer and fewer methods at your disposal – but your responsibility grows bigger and bigger every day.”

“Ordinary people are getting smarter and have more demands, and they are harder and harder to control,” he continued. “Today’s government officials are having a hard time.” Zheng wasn’t one of the officials to be fired. But, given Wukan’s recent tensions, it would seem hard to find a better example of a tin-ear…

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