The long-running dispute in Lufeng between farmers and developers (and local officials) erupted this week in renewed violence after one of the villagers who had been selected by villagers to negotiate with the authorities died in police custody. As reported today by The New York Times:
Reached by phone on Wednesday, residents said throngs of people were staging noisy rallies by day outside Wukan’s village hall, while young men with walkie-talkies employed tree limbs to obstruct roads leading to the town. Not far away, heavily armed riot police were maintaining their own roadblocks. The siege has prevented deliveries from reaching the town of 20,000, but residents said they had no problem receiving food from adjoining villages.
After the earlier demonstrations in September, in which farmers protested the seizure of their land by developers, local authorities agreed to investigate the villagers claims. Two local leaders were dismissed and county officials offered to open negotiations with village representatives. It was one of these representatives, a butcher names Xue Jinbo, who died a few days ago.
According to a 24-year-old villager who described himself as Mr. Xue’s son-in-law, his 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. Although government censors 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 riots of in September.
UPDATE 12/16/11: Demonstrations have continued for over a week now since news broke of Xue’s death. Village officials have fled, but there is much anxiety as villagers wait for the authorities’ next move. As reported today by Michael Wines, “life here goes on in an aura of unreality as much as uncertainty, a mixture of grief and optimism and somewhat willful ignorance of the hints of trouble at every police roadblock and on every news broadcast.”
“We will defend our farmland to the death!” a handmade banner proclaims, referring to a possible land deal they fear will strip them of almost all their farmland. “Is it a crime,” another muses, “to ask for the return of our land and for democracy and transparency?”
Wines also points out a history of problems with the developer – Southern Garden – in other places as well: “In 2007, the Southern Weekly newspaper alleged irregularities in a hotel construction contract awarded to the company by a district government in Zhangjiajie, in Hunan Province. The paper suggested that the government heavily discounted the project’s land cost because most of Country Garden’s payment was secretly diverted to a company in which two Country Garden officials had invested.”
UPDATE: 12/21/11 – After Wukang villagers threatened to march on the government offices in Lufeng, several senior Guangdong provincial officials – Zhu Mingguo, deputy chief of the provincial Communist Party committee, and Zheng Yanxiong, party secretary of the administrative region of Shanwei, – took the unprecedented move to meet with the villagers on 12/20. According to a report by Edward Wong:
In the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour outside Wukan, two senior provincial officials spoke to Lin Zuluan, 65, one of the villagers’ main representatives. Mr. Lin said after the meeting that the officials had agreed to three conditions set by the protesters, including freeing several villagers who had been detained, though the issue of the land sales remained unresolved. “I was satisfied with how the meeting went,” Mr. Lin said. “Now they’ve opened up a new channel of communication, and it will help to build a closer relationship between the two sides.”
As a result, villagers have agreed to call off their protests and reopen access to the village. Whether this will resolve the land dispute remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, video of an internal speech given by Zheng Yanxiong, the secretary of Shanwei Municipality, where Lufeng and Wukang are located, went viral on the mainland before being pulled by censors. China Hush has posted some juicy quotes from Zheng’s speech, including these two:
Finding several reporters to make a scene, thinking that the more the press defame me the more I will suffer, thinking the problem will get me fired. What good can come of getting me fired? They will just send another Mayor down here, and I bet he won’t be any better than me. Ha, I am kidding, but there is some truth to it… If overseas media are trust-worthy, then pigs can climb trees.
I have personal experience of our national policies. Instead of counting on such responsible government, you are turning to a few crappy overseas media, crappy newspaper, crappy websites? You are mistaking the right with the wrong. What can they do to help you? Nothing. They can’t wait to see us fighting each other, turning socialism into a mess. Then they will be happy. If you need any help, just come to the government, don’t go to outsiders to spread rumors about.
More excerpts from Zheng’s speech have been posted on China Smack. It’s tempting to think that Zheng’s speech was the turning point for Beijing to pressure Guangdong into finally resolving the confrontation. But while Zheng’s comments may appear crude, he identified what made Wukang’s protest stand apart from thousands of similar incidents in rural China over past few years, and that is the media-savvy of the villagers themselves. Wukang managed to turn their protest into a media event:
Mainland Chinese news media were barred from reporting on Wukan, but dozens of reporters for foreign publications arrived here last week after being alerted to the protest by an article in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. They slipped through a police cordonby traveling on motor rickshaws along winding dirt roads and, in one case, by hiring a boat to reach the harbor. The villagers threw open their doors. They now had the means to wage a propaganda war.
The presence of international journalists may have kept the local authorities from sending in security forces after an initial assault failed. And the pressure of continuous news reports from Wukan no doubt helped spur the leader and party secretary of Guangdong Province, Wang Yang, to send senior officials here on Wednesday to negotiate with the protesters. After the meeting, village leaders said that they had obtained some concessions and they called a halt to the protest, even though the dispute over the land sales remained unresolved. They held additional talks with provincial officials on Thursday.
In many other parts of China, villagers do not have the same firm grasp of the nuances of the news media. But Guangdong is China’s wealthiest and most liberal province, and it has publications that are relatively freewheeling. More important, Cantonese speakers here gravitate to the uncensored news reports and cultural products of Hong Kong, on the province’s southern edge.
“People in Guangdong are close to Hong Kong,” Yuan Weishi, a historian, now retired, who taught at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, said in a telephone interview. “They watch Hong Kong TV, rarely China Central Television, and so have a better understanding of civil society and the rule of law.”
“Have you noticed how many Hong Kong reporters are in Wukan?” he added. “Being exposed to the Hong Kong media in their daily lives gives Guangdong people a better understanding of how the media works and what they can do.”
China Geeks has posted a four-part series on ‘The Siege of Wukan’ that also contains a video summarizing the initial protests in September.