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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

After village takeover, many questions Lingering uncertainty at funeral for negotiator in Chinese land dispute

December 20, 2011

The International Herald Tribune Asia Edition (The International Herald Tribune - Asia Pacific edition)
- Clipping Loc. 3-45 | Added on Saturday, December 17, 2011, 06:16 AM


Clad in black and wearing white armbands, the people of this coastal village held a funeral without a body on Friday for a hero whose death is a mystery. It was an apt metaphor for an extraordinary citizen movement whose initial euphoria is increasingly shadowed by another dark mystery: How is this going to end? The funeral was for 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, a self-employed leather worker who was among a dozen locals chosen by local villagers in September to broker an end to a bitter land dispute here. Mr. Xue vanished on Dec. 9, abducted with four other men from a local restaurant. He turned up dead on Dec. 11, setting off a protest by many of the 13,000 residents here that sent both the village’s leaders and its few police officers fleeing for safety. Neither they nor any other representative of official power has dared to return, and protesters have blocked their re-entry with trees felled across roads. Since then, Wukan has been led by its 11 remaining negotiators, who gather townspeople in a central square daily to rally their faith and chart a course toward a solution. One of the handmade banners that festoon the square makes their case succinctly: ‘‘Is it guilty to ask for the return of our land and for democracy and transparency?’’ ‘‘We will unify and get support from the entire society,’’ Lin Zuluan, 67, the town’s de facto leader, said in an interview Friday at his home off one of the town’s narrow alleys. ‘‘We hope the central government will send someone to intervene in this situation.’’ Asked when that might happen, he replied, ‘‘Not too long. That’s my judgment.’’ In fact, when and how the protest will end are anything but clear. Contemporary China bubbles with spontaneous protests, and even government figures suggest that the number has risen steadily in the past decade. But seldom, if ever, have the authorities lost control of an entire town. Initially, at least, they have appeared flummoxed over what to do about it. Like countless other protests in China, the Wukan takeover is rooted in a land dispute. The village’s 27 square kilometers, or 10 square miles, of land are collectively owned, about 4 square kilometers of them initially reserved for farming. Under law, no land can be transferred or sold unless local governments and two-thirds of village committee members approve. Since 1990, Mr. Lin said, the local village committee and its overseer, the Lufeng city government, have appropriated more than 60 percent of the land for a host of projects — an air-conditioner factory, livestock operations, private funerary temples and other projects — without consulting the villagers themselves. Repeated complaints, or petitions, to higher-ups in the Guangdong Province government went nowhere, he said. The last straw landed early this year when Lufeng officials and one of China’s largest property developers, Country Garden, made plans to build a vast luxury project on the property of several villages, including Wukan. Two people familiar with the deal said the company planned to buy about 532,000 square meters, or 2 square miles, of land to construct villas and shopping centers. The Lufeng government and the village committee leaders told villagers that the deal had fallen through, Mr. Lin said. But after villagers saw construction under way in September, they assailed Lufeng officials, who ordered a halt to building and set up the committee of 12 villagers to settle differences over the project. One of the 12, Mr. Xue, was at a local restaurant on Dec. 9 when he and four other villagers were abducted, their hands tied with tape, and loaded into a minivan. The other four surfaced in jails in Shenzhen and other nearby cities, accused of inciting subversive activities among Wukan villagers. Last Sunday, officials of nearby local governments summoned Mr. Xue’s family and took them to a funeral home. They said that he had died of a heart attack in a hospital and that medical records of his care would be provided. But family members say officials confiscated their mobile telephones before allowing them into the funeral home, apparently to prevent them from taking photographs. Mr. Xue’s nose was caked with blood, his body was black with bruises and his left thumb was apparently broken, a nephew named Xue Ruiqiang said Friday. Mr. Xue’s 21-year-old daughter, Xue Jianwan, said before the funeral service that her father ‘‘was a straightforward man who always stood up for people.’’ ‘‘Mom said that if he hadn’t been such a straightforward person, he probably wouldn’t have ended up like this,’’ she added. Shi Da contributed research. ACTIVIST SENT BACK TO PRISON The Chinese activist lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has not been seen in public for more than 20 months, has been sent back to jail for three years for breaking his probation, The Associated Press reported from Beijing, citing state media as saying Friday. A brief report by Xinhua, the state-run news agency, marked the first official confirmation that Mr. Gao is still alive. Rights groups have voiced concern about his situation and criticism over the government silence surrounding his case. Xinhua said that Mr. Gao ‘‘had seriously violated probation rules for a number of times, which led to the court decision to withdraw the probation.’’ It did not say what violations he had committed or could have committed because he was thought to have been in the custody of Chinese security forces since he was last seen in April 2010. In December 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison, with a five-year probation period that would have expired next Thursday.
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