x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Chinese villagers' siege a peasants' revolt

The ejection of the authorities from Wukan, China, was a peasants¿ revolt in a land dispute.

WUKAN, CHINA // A farmer wearing a straw hat and smoking a cigarette mans a barricade of branches at a side entrance to a fishing village in southern China.

If evidence were needed that the ejection of the authorities from this village was a peasants' revolt in a land dispute, this man surely provides it.

There is an extra line of defence behind the branches consisting of a ditch dug in the dusty road, although its effectiveness should the authorities - who have cut off the main roads to the village - try to regain control of Wukan is clearly limited.

China's rebel village of 13,000 people forced out local Communist Party officials and police this month and now wants the authorities to back down over what residents say is the taking of their land by bureaucrats in collusion with property developers.

Police have set up their own barricades on the roads leading up to the village, preventing food from coming in, although locals are using tracks that run beside the fields surrounding the village to bring in supplies.

How long the Chinese authorities will allow the siege to continue and whether Wukan will act as an inspiration to other parts of China angry at what residents regard as corruption over compulsory land acquisitions are remaining questions.

While outwardly the Wukan villagers appear relaxed and even jovial at times, they admit to fears over what might happen.

"We're afraid of the police coming over and getting people," said a local man in his 40s, surnamed Zhang.

"The local government doesn't really speak the truth. But we believe in the central government and we believe justice will eventually come to the village."

Protests over the proposed sale of land to developers started in September. Local government offices were damaged and police vehicles smashed. The villagers have a video showing police vehicles being overturned.

This month, police arrested five alleged ringleaders of the protests, only to then be forced out of the village themselves by force of numbers.

One of those arrested, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody a week ago. Villagers say he was beaten to death. The official version is that he died of a heart attack.

China may see tens of thousands of "mass incidents" each year, but events in Wukan in Guangdong province have stood out, not least because for the moment, the authorities have given up trying to control events and the villagers are governing themselves.

The fishing boats through which many of the villagers make their living, are lying idle in the harbour.

Events in Wukan could inspire, according to the man who has been acting as the head of the village, Lin Zuluan, 67, similar protests elsewhere.

Residents are keen to stress is that they are not calling for the downfall of the Communist Party. During a rally yesterday at the village square they shook their fists in unison and chanted "the Communist Party is great".

Instead, anger is directed at local officials who are said to be looking to profit by selling land to developers.

This view was reflected in the chants at yesterday's rally, which was attended by the vast majority of village residents.

"Down with the corrupt officials! Return our land! Please help us, central government!" they shouted, while raising their fists.

They also chanted that Xue, whose body has not yet been returned to his relatives, was "innocent". Mr Lin said the villagers would march to the offices of the local authority near the villahe if Xue's body was not handed over within five days. A memorial service was held for him on Thursday.

Dotting the narrow lanes of the village, are black-and-white posters showing a smiling Xue with the words: "He's a hero of the Wukan people. The whole village offers their sympathy."

After yesterday's rally, hundreds of villagers lined up to donate money to buy food for poorer residents, an indication of the sense of solidarity within the village

How long that solidarity will last is another question. At least 1,000 villagers are believed to have signed their names to a document indicating they accept the government's position.

The authorities have promised to suspend one proposed land deal with a developer, and yesterday handed out notices insisting they will investigate alleged illegal land sales. Most residents, however, say all land sales should be suspended.

"The local corrupt officials are responsible for the loss of the land. Nowadays this is very common," said a villager surnamed Cai, who declined to give his full name.

"We are worried about what will happen, but we believe the central government will come and help us."