For the past week, residents of Wukan in China’s southern Guangdong province have seized control of their fishing village of 13,000, following the death of an elected village leader, 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, while in police custody. Xue was abducted on December 9 while he was seeking to resolve a land dispute between villagers and the local government: The villagers of Wukan had been protesting since September over what they say was a secret decision to sell a large tract of village land, including much of their farmland, to a Hong Kong-listed developer, Country Gardens, which is one of the largest real-estate developers in China.
On December 11, local authorities told villagers that Xue had died of a heart attack. But relatives who saw his body said it showed signed of abuse — blood, bruises, a broken thumb — and are demanding that Xue’s body be returned within five days or they will march on government offices in the administrative center in Lufeng.
The outrage of the villagers resulted in Wukan’s nine-member village committee fleeing, Ling Zuluan, described as the villagers’ “de facto leader,” said that officials from Lufeng had come to Wukan for talks on December 15, but no mention had been made of returning Xue’s body.
While police are blockading roads to Wukan, and also access to it by river and ocean, it is said to be still “possible to surreptitiously enter and leave” the village. Protest leaders say that authorities have sought to deny them medication and food, but shops in Wukan are reportedly stocked and supplies provided from nearby villages.
As the New York Times notes, it is “unclear what outside authorities would do about the demand and whether the protesters could in fact carry out their threat of a march.” Villagers are said to be hoping that Beijing might intervene but so far officials from China’s capital have been silent. Wukan’s residents are worried about what could happen if Beijing does not step in, as the New York Times reports:
“Our original intent was just to get our land back,” a 29-year-old homemaker who identified herself only as Mrs. Zhu said as she stood under a Chinese flag, mounted on a makeshift pole at a protesters’ checkpoint on the village outskirts. “We never intended that things would get into such a situation.”
Asked what could be done, she replied: “We have to fight to the end. That’s the only way out. If we retreat now, all the hardships the government imposed on us will come true.”
Writing in the Guardian, Tao Ran points out that the protest in Wukan is only one of several “mass incidents” — officially defined as “any kind of planned or impromptu gathering that forms because of internal contradictions” – that have occurred in recent years in China. More than 60 percent of these mass incidents has occurred in land disputes similar to that which led Xue to speak to the local government in Wukan. Says Ran:
The Wukan case says a lot about the serious tension between state and society in the fast urbanising China. It is difficult to play the land requisition game fairly under the current system, since farmers are neither allowed to negotiate directly on the compensation package, nor are they allowed to develop their own land for non-agricultural purposes. They have to sell their land to local government first, which defines the price then leases the land to industrial and commercial/residential users for a profit. As land prices keep rising in China, it is not surprising that farmers with rising expectations are becoming increasingly unhappy. As a result, mass incidents, sometimes as violent as in Wukan, are inevitable.
For their part, local authorities in China are “undermining grassroots democracy” in their pursuit of “revenue via aggressive urbanisation and industrialization.” Farmers are finding themselves in effect sold out by local officials with an eye to offering the most attractive — the lowest — prices to developers. Ran underscores that “Wukan should be a signal for China to reform its land requisition system in order to keep local governments away from the financial gains of abusive land taking.”
About 7,000 attended a ceremony for Xue held last week, mourning him as a “community hero.” One funeral banner proclaimed “You sacrificed your life for our land.”
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Photo of farmers in rural southern China by Andy Siitonen