The town that dared to defy Beijing

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The death in police custody of a village elder who tried to fight land-grabs by the state has galvanised protesters, says Clifford Coonan

Until the land seizures began, Xue Jinbo was not a particularly notable man and his home of Wukan was not a particularly notable village.

Mr Xue had a small business selling handicrafts in the Chinese fishing community of about 20,000. He had no history of involvement in politics. Wukan, a reasonably well-off place, was not known as a hotbed for radicals.

Then the authorities decided to sell the village's land for development without residents' consent. After months of simmering protests at the imposition, Mr Xue put himself forward as a representative in negotiations that were supposed to bring the crisis to a close.

Instead, Mr Xue died in police custody. The circumstances were murky at best. And yesterday, as his friends, neighbours and fellow-villagers turned out in their thousands to mourn his death on the sixth day since his passing, it was clear that because of Mr Xue, Wukan – which has been surrounded by barricades designed to keep the authorities out as its people voice their fury – had changed for good. The question is: is the village an outlier? Or is it a symbol of a change that is sweeping China?

It isn't easy to predict how the protest will end; certainly there is no dilution of feeling in Wukan, where yesterday, 7,000 people turned out for the funeral. Villagers lined up to make speeches remembering the man who has become a martyr, bowing before his picture and holding up banners that read: "You sacrificed your life for our land" and: "Sadly mourn Xue Jinbo".

One villager, Huang Hancan, told AP that no one believed the official version of events, in which Mr Xue died of a heart attack. "He was killed for struggling to win the land for the villagers. We all cried for him," Huang said. "He must have suffered from mistreatment for a good, healthy man to turn into a dead man just a day after being detained. No doubt, he was beaten to death and everyone can imagine that."

But even if such circumstances are rare, it does seem clear that the protest is part of a broader challenge to the authority of the Communist Party and a compelling new feature in a picture of unrest that blots the landscape despite decades of muscular economic growth. Across the country there are growing signs that the economy may be slowing and this could intensify anti-government sentiment, forcing Beijing to work hard to stop a pressure cooker effect undoing the progress it has made in raising living standards around the country.

While most Chinese people are largely indifferent to calls for more democracy, what does cause huge anger is corruption, especially by Communist Party loyalists.

Corruption is at the heart of the Wukan case and the villagers complain about "land grabs" by corrupt local cadres. The protests were sparked by the seizure of hectares of land and their sale to property developer Country Garden for 1 billion yuan (£100m). Crucially, this is not a dirt-poor village in the dustbowl heartland: it is a prosperous village in Guangdong province, which lies at the heart of the Pearl Delta, the engine of the country's economic boom, that produces nearly one third of products for export.

In this province, which has a dense population of 100 million, demand for land to build factories and housing has led to a sharp increase in the cost of real estate.

By some reckonings, last year there were 280,000 so-called "mass incidents", including petitions, demonstrations and strikes, both peaceful and violent, in China. That's a huge rise on estimates for six years ago, when only around 90,000 such incidents were recorded. In many cases they were linked to anger over corruption and other forms of abuse of power such as illegal land seizures. Many took place in rich provinces such as Guangdong or Zhejiang or near Shanghai, along the southern coast and eastern seaboard. In August, thousands of people took to the streets in the rich north-eastern city of Dalian to protest against a petrochemical plant that recently caused a toxic spill scare and the display of public dissent forced the authorities to order the facility to be closed immediately.

Throughout the Wukan riots, the protesters have focused their anger at the local government and angry mobs have attacked public buildings, including the headquarters of the local Communist Party and a police station.

But as extraordinary as they have been, they are part of a pattern that has existed for years.

In April 2005 I visited the village of Huaxi in Zhejiang province, shortly after 1,500 police took on thousands of villagers trying to block deliveries to and from 13 chemical plants in the village centre. The police were forced out and the scene the day of the Huaxi riot was of overturned cars and police uniforms hung on barricades as trophies.

The feeling was one of euphoria; of possibility.

The Huaxi riots took place after authorities came to destroy roadblocks erected by villagers to stop deliveries to and from the factories. Villagers said the factories were poisoning their crops, causing miscarriages and making their children sick. So the parallels with the current situation are strong. And today, the reaction across the country to events in Wukan, largely evident through microblogs such as Sina Weibo – which is similar to the banned Facebook – has been outraged.

"China is becoming more and more unstable. We need to work hard to strengthen our own culture and ability to achieve things. Don't the children of these officials know about Chinese history or have concerns about China's future?" wrote one microblogger.

Another pointed to the Five Year Plan 2010-2015, which was due to be a period of adjustment.

"Because of extensive development, there are lots of negative effects. The people's hearts have lost stability, the contradiction between the people and the government has been highlighted and the whole of Chinese society has been trapped in a crisis, with a loss of trust and morality. For the past 30 years we competed on scale and speed, for the next 30 years we need strength and quality," they wrote.

For the Communist Party, the key to maintaining control is to stop opposition to its rule becoming coordinated and organised.

The last time the government really marshalled its forces against opposing forces was in the 1990s when the Falun Gong spiritual movement began to organise millions of opponents, and it cracked down harshly on what it sees as an "evil cult".

Now Weibo is seen as a profound threat. Accordingly, the Beijing city government has unveiled rules that require individual users, and indeed corporate users, to register with their real names. They have three months to do so or face the consequences.

The time frame for events to come to a head in Wukan appears to be tighter. Already cracks have begun to appear in the villagers' united front, with reports that some residents have switched sides in exchange for food and cooking oil. The outcome for the ringleaders of the movement is unlikely to be a happy one.

But for now the protest is in full swing – and its proponents' determination to see it through can only be an uncomfortable sight for the authorities. "We want justice from the government," said Huang. "And we will fight to the end."

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