China's government is trying to defuse a revolt in a small fishing village, offering to investigate the land seizures that touched off the rebellion and vowing to punish leaders of the uprising.
The village of Wukan has for months been the site of simmering protests by locals who say officials sold farmland to developers without their consent. Protests against official misconduct are increasingly common in fast-developing China, but the residents of Wukan have taken things a step further, erecting barricades over the weekend to keep police out and posing a challenge to the authoritarian government.
On Wednesday, the mayor of Shanwei city — which oversees Wukan, a village of 20,000 —threatened to take strong measures against those who instigated others to create trouble and damage public property, the official China News Service said.
At the same time, Mayor Wu Zili promised to investigate local officials for wrongdoing and impose a temporary freeze on one farmland development project until a majority of villagers are satisfied with the conditions of the land transfer.
Officials fled from village
The government frequently deploys such carrot-and-stick tactics to deal with protests. But while successful in ending confrontations, the approach does not often produce fair deals for protesters — and leaders of the protesting Wukan villagers expressed skepticism.
"It's all a pretense. That's only a small part of the problem," said Huang Hancan, a fisherman who is one of the village's representatives in the land dispute, referring to the mayor's promises of an investigation and a freeze of the development deal.
"The bigger problem is that we want to get our land back. We want to re-elect our village officials because the current corrupt officials were not elected … and we want those detained to be released," Huang said by phone.
Locals like Huang have essentially taken over the village after officials either fled from earlier protests, absconded with the money from land sales or were fired, according to various accounts from villagers and Chinese media.
Problems in Wukan date back to September, when hundreds of villagers smashed buildings and clashed with police in protest against the sale of their farmland without their consent. In the months that followed, villagers have submitted petitions and sought meetings with higher level officials without success.
Last Friday, police entered the village and took away several key representatives and when police tried to come back the next day, villagers blockaded the roads with tree trunks and barriers to prevent them from entering. Huang said police fired tear gas and water cannons at the villagers, who had armed themselves with sticks, clubs, hoes and other farming tools.
"If we didn't have hoes and sticks in hand, they might have taken more of us," Huang said.
Police then retreated and set up blockades on the main roads into Wukan, preventing villagers from entering and leaving and food from being transported in, villagers reached by phone have said.
Village representative died in police custody
Anger boiled over on Sunday after Xue Jinbo, one of the key representatives from the village, died in police custody. Family members and supporters suspected he was beaten. Chinese media reported that local police and provincial authorities said Xue died of cardiac failure.
With a booming economy, demand for land to build factories and housing complexes in China has soared. Land disputes have grown apace, becoming one of the leading causes of the tens of thousands of large-scale protests that hit China every year.
Around Wukan village and in much of the rest of Guangdong province, conflicts have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.
In announcing the freeze on the development project, the Shanwei mayor said the government would ensure that it would only proceed when a majority of villagers consent to the terms of the deal.
But local officials often put heavy pressure on villagers to force them to agree to conditions less favorable to them, said Sally Sargeson, an expert on Chinese rural issues at the Australian National University.
In one village she visited for research, Sargeson said, the heads of households were rounded up, taken into town and kept in separate rooms without any food or water until they agreed to approve a land deal. In the meantime, she said, their families back in the village were surrounded by police vehicles.
"So, they exert the most terrible pressure," Sargeson said. "By law, they're not allowed to coerce people to sign off on these things, but of course it happens all the time."