x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Chinese village uprising leaves fishermen unable to fish

Wukan has captured the attention of the world as its residents have risen up against what they see as corruption among the local Communist Party officials who answer only to their party bosses.

WUKAN, CHINA // The inlet beside Wukan, in China's south, is tranquil. Herons and egrets fly over the nearby lagoon. The surrounding hills, some rising high above the village, are covered with lush trees and shrubs and the green-blue waters show barely a ripple. There is no wind.

For the fisherman of this village on the South China Sea three hours' drive east of Hong Kong, this should be a pleasant day for fishing.

But this is a fishing village where the fisherman cannot fish.

Wukan has captured the attention of the world, and of internet-savvy Chinese, as its residents have risen up against what they see as corruption among the local Communist Party officials who answer only to their party bosses.

China may be a country that spends more on maintaining internal security than on defence, according to finance ministry figures, but the residents of Wukan have nonetheless driven out the bureaucrats and the police and are now governing themselves.

In return police armed with shotguns are guarding the roads into the village, partly cutting residents off from food and other supplies. And from the sea they depend on.

It's all over their defiance against land seizures and the death of Xue Jinbo, a 42-year-old man who led their protests that began months ago.

"We cannot go out right now as there are police patrol boats," said a fisherman who gave only his family name, Chen, because he is scared of reprisals, sitting on the back of a motorbike in one of Wukan's quiet and narrow backstreets.

"If you go out to fish you would probably be caught. We are just spending money without getting any money, and staying at home," added Mr Chen, whose father too was a Wukan fisherman.

For years, rural Chinese have been complaining about abuse by local officials. And yet they have had little recourse to the central government in Beijing.

Often land their families have farmed for generations is suddenly compulsorily acquired and handed to developers, many with links to the officials who seized the land.

This month, the people of Wukan decided they had had enough. Wukan is not the first village in China to stage a mutiny. But few others have kept the authorities out this long.

Anger first erupted in September when residents heard about plans to sell of much of the village's farmland to a developer, with local officials thought to be looking for huge profits. Police vehicles were overturned and local authority offices allegedly damaged.

Earlier this month police rounded up a handful of supposed ringleaders, one of whom, Xue, died in custody. Party bureaucrats and police were forced to flee the village in the face of thousands of protesting residents. Police stations and party offices are empty.

In the face of the police blockade, residents have been riding motorbikes through dusty lanes to secure food supplies from nearby villages. Some however admit that replenishing stocks is a struggle.

About 1,000 of the 13,000 residents are said to have signed a pledge accepting concessions by the local authorities, such as promising to abandon one proposed sale of land near the village and investigate corruption. But most residents are willing to wait things out.

"We will never give up. We will persist because the corrupt officials have sold all our land. We are determined, even though we don't have much," said a woman from the village surnamed Zou.

The village's new leadership said yesterday they were not even prepared to hold talks with officials unless Xue's body is returned, the remaining protest ringleaders released and all land sales halted. Residents will march on local government offices just outside the village tomorrow if Xue's family has not received his body by then.

As long as the impasse continues, Wukan's brightly coloured boats are unable to set sail at six in the morning as they usually would, to return by early afternoon.

On a good day, a boat would bring in a catch, including cutlassfish, worth more than 200 yuan (Dh115.7).

Instead, one fisherman, a middle-aged man who did not give his name, is manning a makeshift barricade at a bridge spanning the inlet, sitting with two other men under a tent-like awning. The police checkpoint, further down the road, is not visible.

"We used to go out every day," he says disconsolately. "But now if we go out the police just chase us back in."