x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Unrest set to go on in China

Communist Party village leaders have been accused of selling off rural land without consent but aggrieved locals have little recourse to the law.

Residents reinforce a barricade made of trees laid across a street at the village of Wukan in Lufeng county, Guangdong province. David Gray / Reuters
Residents reinforce a barricade made of trees laid across a street at the village of Wukan in Lufeng county, Guangdong province. David Gray / Reuters

WUKAN, CHINA //Unfolding a large hand-drawn map on the floor of his living room, a businessman in this troubled village in southern China points out land he says has been stolen from his family over generations.

He also brandishes two large copies of deeds he says prove his family has rights to the land long since taken from them. But every appeal to higher authorities to get the land back or be paid fair compensation for it has failed.

Across China, his story is repeated hundreds of thousands of times: land taken by officials from villagers with little or no compensation.

Analysts say land theft - and the simmering social rebellion it is causing - is becoming a major challenge for the Communist Party.

"I didn't get any compensation," said the 44-year-old, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal.

"The land was sold slowly and the village party secretary had his own property development company. They just sold the land under their name."

His once anonymous fishing village of Wukan has now become a focus of world attention - it has thrown out its police and government officials and is under siege by shotgun-wielding police.

Villagers have set up their own barricades of branches and ditches. Some are manned by fishermen who can no longer take their boats out to sea as they have been blocked by the authorities.

Villagers want land sales stopped and investigations into officials and into the death of a protest leader, Xue Jinbo, to begin.

Xue Jinbo's family says he was beaten to death in police custody. Officials say it was a heart attack.

Villagers are promising more protests if his body is not given back to his family by tomorrow.

"For the last 19 years they have sold our land without giving people any compensation. It's unfair," said Yang Semao, head of a newly formed council in the village.

"They take the land away. They do whatever they want to do."

Beijing's resistance to introducing an independent judiciary and power structures outside the Communist Party is cited as a factor allowing corruption to flourish at all levels of bureaucracy, but the frustration here is not directed at the central authorities.

Instead, criticism is levelled at local officials such as the now absent party secretary Xue Chang, who residents say lorded it over them for four decades.

A notice on the wall of a Wukan house that has become a makeshift newsroom for the Chinese and world media insists: "We are not [in] revolt, we support the Communist Party, our love of country."

Similarly, a villager at one of the barricades said he would like the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, nicknamed "Grandpa Wen" and regarded as China's most popular politician, to step in and solve the dispute.

As they continue to hope the central authorities will halt land sales and and bring an end to the dispute, residents yesterday protested again, chanting in the main square.

As well as giving back the protest leader's body, residents are demanding authorities release three others said to have helped organise demonstrations in September that saw police vehicles overturned and the offices of local officials damaged in the first expression of anger.

The village has pledged to march on nearby local government offices tomorrow unless their demands are met.

"If they don't release them, there's no way we can talk," said Zhuang Songkun, whose son Zhuang Liehong is one of those in custody.

"If the government releases the three people and returns the body, we'll open the road and then we can talk," he said.

The heads of more than 20 nearby villages yesterday visited to speak to residents' representatives, insisting they were coming on their own initiative to help solve the dispute and not at the urging of higher authorities.

While the authorities have promised to suspend one land deal and investigate corruption allegations, residents insist without all land being protected, they will not back down.

They don't want any more of their number to lose out.

Much of what was once farmland around Wukan is now covered in villas (many said to be owned by associates of the absent village party secretary), factories and even an unfinished luxury hotel.

Across the country, Communist Party village heads, who report to more senior party officials rather than residents, have been accused of selling off rural land without consent. Aggrieved locals have little recourse to the law as petitioners usually have their complaints rejected and courts are considered to enforce the will of party officials, even if this conflicts with Chinese law.

"Every villager is angry when they see their land has been sold by corrupt officials," says the businessman with the map. "For sure, I'm very angry."