China seeks rebel village concessions as new protest flares

WUKAN, China Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:12am EST

1 of 10. A resident carrying baskets and wearing a motorcycle helmet walks down a street lined with protest banners in the village of Wukan in Lufeng county, Guangdong province December 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Chinese officials offered concessions on Tuesday to a village that has rebelled against Communist Party authorities to try to get residents to call off a march to government offices, as a new protest flared further up the coast against pollution.

Residents of Wukan in south China's Guangdong province have threatened to march on a local government office in protest over the seizure of farmland for development, and over the suspicious death in custody of a protest organizer, Xue Jinbo.

Though the rebellion is limited to one village, it has attracted widespread attention and proven a humbling rebuff to the ruling Communist Party, which values stability above all else.

Underscoring those fears, in a separate protest in Haimen, a town further east up the coast from Wukan, residents demonstrated in front of government offices and blocked a highway over plans to build a power plant.

Pictures on microblogging site Weibo, which could not be independently verified by Reuters, showed hundreds of people gathered in front of the offices as riot police kept watch.

"They want to build a power plant here in the town, and the people don't want that," one resident said by telephone.

A government official, who declined to provide his name, said the protest had dispersed.

"The authorities are talking about how to resolve this matter, but I'm unable to tell you how that will happen," the official said.

State news agency Xinhua said that thousands of people blocked a highway to protest against the building of a coal-fired power plant over pollution concerns.

"The villagers complained that the current power plant had led to a rise in the number of cancer patients, the deterioration of the environment and a drop in fishing hauls," the report said.

"Local government officials arrived at the scene to talk to the villagers, and the protesters had left the expressway by late afternoon."

CONCESSIONS OFFERED IN WUKAN

Protests in China have become relatively common over corruption, pollution, wages, and illegal land grabs that local officials attempt to justify in the name of development.

Chinese experts put the number of "mass incidents," as such protests are known, taking place each year across China at about 90,000 in recent years.

The government appeared to be making efforts to resolve the standoff in Wukan.

The two sides would meet on Wednesday morning, said village elder Lin Zuluan, who will be conducting the talks.

He told Reuters they would ask for the release of three detained men, experts to examine Xue's body and for the government to recognize the legality of the village committee they have set up.

"If these are not met, our problems will not be solved," Lin said.

"If we reach a consensus, then we'll cancel the petition tomorrow afternoon," he added, referring to the planned march.

Residents said they received a text message from the government, citing conciliatory comments from Guangdong's deputy Communist Party boss Zhu Mingguo.

"One, the people's pleas are reasonable. Some departments, in their work, do indeed have some problems. Two, the majority's aggressive actions can be understood and forgiven; we will not pursue any responsibility," the text read.

For more than a week, residents of Wukan have driven off officials and police, and held protests in outrage at the death in custody of Xue, whose family rejects the government's position that he died of natural causes.

They and fellow villagers believe he was subjected to abuse that left injuries, including welts, on his body.

Guangdong's official newspaper, the Southern Daily, said the government of Shanwei had offered to negotiate with the developer to return 404 acres of land and to compensate villagers.

Zheng Yanxiong, the Communist Party boss of Shanwei, which oversees Wukan and Lufeng, said the government would "guarantee the villagers' interests," the newspaper reported.

But barricaded Wukan residents, who were shown a DVD of Zheng speaking with officials about the concessions, said they did not believe him.

"He's a fool. He's a corrupt official," said a villager, 35, who gave his family name as Wu. "If he wanted to face reality, he would have done something sooner and solved our problem quickly, not wait until today. I don't believe him."

(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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