China exploded into open rebellion this week after villagers chased away government leaders, set up roadblocks and began arming themselves with homemade weapons, residents said.
Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The conflict in Wukan, a coastal settlement of 20,000 people near the country’s industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, escalated Monday after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Communist Party had died in police custody. The authorities say a heart attack killed the 42-year-old man, but relatives say his body bore signs of torture.
Residents set up blockades to keep out the police and prevent more arrests. Some residents said armed riot police officers were blocking shipments of food and water into the village in an attempt to suppress the uprising.
Spasms of social turmoil in China have become increasingly common, a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. But the clashes in Wukan, which first erupted in September, are unusual for their longevity — and for the brazenness of the villagers as they call attention to their frustrations.
Despite the government’s best efforts to control social media outlets, such frustrations have only grown as millions of Chinese gain access to unofficial sources of information and use new tools to organize protests.
Last year, there were as many as 180,000 outbursts of what sociologists here describe as “mass incidents”: strikes, sit-ins, rallies and violent clashes that have mushroomed alongside China’s breakneck economic expansion. Government figures from the mid-1990s put the number of such episodes at fewer than 10,000.
“People don’t have sufficient faith in legal procedures or the media and feel they have no redress when bad things are done to them,” said Martin K. Whyte, a Harvard sociologist who studies Chinese social trends.
Some protests are prompted by worsening pollution, claims of unpaid wages or police brutality. A major source of unrest, including in Wukan, is the seizure of land by well-connected private developers or government officials, which involves forced evictions for meager compensation.
More than just unalloyed greed, these seizures are supported by local governments that have come to rely on proceeds of land sales and development to pay for day-to-day operations.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, residents of Wukan said throngs of people were staging a rally outside Wukan’s village hall while men with walkie-talkies used tree limbs to obstruct roads leading to the town. Not far away, heavily armed riot police officers were maintaining their own roadblocks. The siege has prevented some deliveries from reaching the town, but residents said they had managed to get supplies from nearby villages.
A top Communist Party official in Shanwei, whose jurisdiction includes Wukan, said that the allegations of illegal land seizure would be investigated but that villagers who played a role in organizing the clashes would be punished. Referring to Xue Jinbo, the 42-year-old representative who died, the acting mayor of Shanwei, Wu Zili, told reporters on Wednesday: “The death of Xue Jinbo was unlucky. But the family of Xue Jinbo is now calm.”
The discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade. Residents say land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes. Villagers say more than 1,000 acres have been seized and resold to developers in the past decade or so.
The residents’ ire exploded in September, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the sale of a village-owned pig farm for luxury housing that netted the government $156 million. In addition to greater compensation and a public accounting about that deal and earlier ones, the residents called for democratic elections to replace village officials, including the party secretary, who has been in power since the early 1980s. After two days of demonstrations, during which police vehicles were destroyed and government buildings ransacked, the police moved in with what residents described as excessive brutality.
With order restored, county officials vowed to investigate the villagers’ claims. Two local party leaders were fired and the authorities made an offer that is rare in China’s top-down political system: county officials would negotiate with a group of village representatives chosen by popular consensus.
Mr. Xue, a butcher, was among the 13 people selected.
It is unclear what happened next, but villagers say the good will evaporated this month after a Lufeng County government spokesman condemned the earlier protests as illegal and accused Wukan’s ad hoc leaders of abetting “overseas forces that want to sow divisions between the government and villagers.” A few days later, residents took to the streets again and staged a sit-in. Last Friday, the authorities responded by sending in a group of plainclothes police officers who grabbed five village representatives, including Mr. Xue.
Two days later, he was dead.
According to a 24-year-old villager who described himself as Mr. Xue’s son-in-law, Mr. Xue’s knees were bruised, his nostrils were caked with blood and his thumbs appeared to be broken. The man, who spoke by phone and gave his surname as Gao, declined to fully identify himself. “We’ve been to the funeral home a couple of times, but the police won’t release his body,” he said.
The Daily Telegraph of London, which first reported on the most recent skirmishes, said villagers had stockpiled crude weapons, including steel-tipped bamboo spears.
Although government censors have largely blocked news of the latest unrest, the state-run Xinhua news agency weighed in on the “rumors” about Mr. Xue’s death, saying he had died of cardiac arrest a day after confessing to his role in the September uprising. His crimes were described as “damaging public property” and “disrupting public service.”
The account, published Tuesday, said that Mr. Xue had been interrogated over two days and that on the third day a cellmate found him ill. He was taken to a hospital in Shanwei and declared dead 30 minutes later.
The Xinhua article cited public security officials who said Mr. Xue had a history of asthma and heart disease, and it referred to a report by forensic investigators who found no evidence of abuse. “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 center, told Xinhua.
The top party official in Shanwei, Zheng Yanxiong, said Mr. Xue’s death would nonetheless be investigated, but he warned residents against using their suspicions to fuel unrest.
“The government will strive to settle all related problems and hopes the village will not be instigated into staging further riots,” Mr. Zheng said.