The town that dared to defy Beijing

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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."

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor