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We just need some land, say siege villagers

December 27, 2011

December 20, 2011 6:12 pm

By Jamil Anderlini in Wukan Financial Times

 

Zhuang Songkun wipes his failing, cataract-stricken eyes and flashes a metal-filled smile as he explains what he and his neighbours are hoping to achieve from the tense standoff with scores of armed police surrounding their village.

“We just want the central government to solve this problem by giving us a bit of land so we can fill our bellies,” Mr Zhuang, 61, says from the deck of a fishing boat he cannot take out to sea because of a police blockade of the harbour. “We just need some land to cultivate – what else do we need?”

After a village representatives died in police custody and officials and police fled early last week, the villagers of Wukan in Guangdong province, southern China, have been living outside the control of the government and Communist party.

The extraordinary scenes of villagers organising themselves to feed each other and defend their homes have caught the attention of the world, and have even led some to wonder whether this could be the start of a “Chinese spring”.

But while some of their leaders have talked idealistically about the need for “real democracy”, the vast majority of villagers insist their actions have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with their basic economic needs.

From his boat, Mr Zhuang points to the many plots of land he and other villagers say were sold secretly and illegally by local officials, and at the stinking run-off from factories, a pig farm and oyster farms that have polluted the harbour and killed all the fish.

“They sold all the land and they even sold the water and now we have no way to feed ourselves or sustain our future generations,” he says.

His son, Zhuang Liehong, 28, has been in jail since early December, accused of “stirring up trouble among the people”, “disturbing government work” and “collaborating with foreign forces”, after he joined a series of village protests over the claims of corrupt land deals and official misrule that began in earnest in late September.

The authorities sent in riot police, but the protests intensified. The younger Mr Zhuang and three other village leaders were then arrested, and one of them, Xue Jinbo, died in custody on December 11.

The government says he suffered a heart attack, but his family and most villagers believe that he was tortured to death. On the day that his death was announced, police and paramilitary officers tried to storm the village using water cannon and teargas, but were beaten back by irate villagers armed with spears and metal bars.

Various protests have spread across China as the economy has slowed, and the ruling Communist party is struggling to come up with an appropriate response. In a speech on Sunday, the party official in charge of the district covering Wukan compared himself and the government to benevolent parents and the villagers to naughty children.

Zheng Yanxiong, party secretary for Shanwei city, reflected on the growing difficulties of governing, saying: “If we meet all the villagers’ demands then it will raise all of society’s expectations too high.”

Wukan’s villagers are certainly not alone in expressing their gripes. On Tuesday, a separate protest in the town of Haimen, 100km along the coast from Wukan, saw thousands of residents square up to riot police armed with teargas. The main cause of that protest was environmental pollution and the arrest of villagers who had complained about it to the authorities.

But there are signs that the worldwide attention focused on Wukan is causing authorities to rethink their tactics.

On Tuesday night, the provincial government appeared to be trying to take a less confrontational approach by offering to negotiate with village leaders, who delayed a planned protest march in response.

Many Wukan villagers expressed doubts over whether the conciliatory gesture was sincere, however, and pointed to the violent repression the government has often resorted to when its authority is threatened.

“They have lied to us so many times, we just can’t trust them,” said one villager. “Only the top government leaders and party central [committee] can save us and give us back our land.”

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