(Adds details on separate protest)
By Sui-Lee Wee
WUKAN, China Dec 21 A Chinese village
protest that tested the ruling Communist Party for over a week
ended on Wednesday after officials offered concessions over
seized farmland and the death of a village leader, in a rare
spectacle of the government backing down to mobilised citizens.
Residents of Wukan, in southern Guangdong province, had
fended off police with barricades and held protests over the
death in police custody of activist Xue Jinbo, whose family
rejects the government's position that he died of natural
causes, and against the seizure of farmland for development.
But after talks with officials, village representatives told
residents to pull down protest banners and go back to their
normal lives -- provided the government keeps to its word.
"Because this matter has been achieved, we won't persist in
making noise," village organiser, Yang Semao, told an assembly
hall of village representatives and reporters, referring to the
protests. He said protest banners would be taken down.
"They've agreed to our initial requests," Yang told Reuters.
But he added a caveat: "If the government doesn't meet its
commitments, we'll protest again."
Senior officials negotiating with villagers agreed to
release three men held over land protests in September, when a
government office was trashed, and to re-examine the cause of
Xue's death, a village organiser said earlier.
Xue's family and fellow villagers believe he was subjected
to abuse that left injuries on his body. But the government said
an autopsy showed he died of heart problems. Xue was detained
over the land protests that broke out in September.
The concessions showed how eager higher leaders were to
avoid the risk of fresh violence and bloodshed, said Ting Wai,
political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"I think the local government did not want to make
concessions, and then of course when time goes on, the people
became more and more frustrated, and now it is really like a
bomb, so in order to prevent the bomb from exploding the
provincial government has to do something," he said.
Underscoring government fears of unrest, in a separate
protest on Tuesday 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.
State media said on Wednesday the government had
agreed to suspend construction, though there was another protest
which partially blocked a highway.
Chinese officials sometimes make low-key concessions to
local protests, especially after they are over, and also punish
protest organisers. But Wukan turned negotiations into a rare
public spectacle, watched by foreign reporters and discussed
within China -- despite domestic censorship of news.
Under a hot afternoon sun, a thousand villagers gathered to
hear an organiser, Lin Zuluan, explain the concessions from the
government, which they greeted with loud clapping.
He later told reporters that villagers would not suffer
retribution for taking part in the protests.
WARY OF GOVERNMENT PROMISES
Some Wukan residents were wary of the government's promises.
"Our hearts are not at ease," said Zhong Xianmei, a resident
in her thirties. "The dead body isn't back, are the detained
back in their homes? Will their words count?"
Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong, obliquely
acknowledged that the villagers had cause to complain, in
comments published on Wednesday in the Southern Daily, the
official province newspaper.
"This is the outcome of conflicts that accumulated over a
long time in the course of economic and social development,"
said Wang, seen by many analysts as nursing hopes of a spot in
China's next central leadership.
Guangdong is a prosperous part of China. But the upheavals
of urbanisation and industrialisation have fanned discontent
among increasingly assertive citizens, who often blame local
officials for corruption and abuses.
Rural land in China is usually owned in name by village
collectives. But in fact, government officials can mandate
seizing land for development in return for compensation, which
villagers often say is inadequate.
Protests in China have become relatively common over
corruption, pollution, wages, and land grabs that local
officials justify in the name of development.
Chinese experts put the number of "mass incidents", as such
protests are known, at about 90,000 a year in recent years.
China's leaders, determined to maintain one-party control,
worry that such outbursts might turn into broader and more
persistent challenges to their power.
But even in Wukan, villagers professed faith in the central
government. On Wednesday morning, about 300 of them lined the
sides of a road into the village, preparing to welcome Zhu
Mingguo, the main official negotiating with them.
Zhu promised an impartial autopsy for the late Xue, and
"transparent" disclosure in the media of how the villagers'
grievances are addressed, according to a report in the
province's official newspaper, the Southern Daily.
Lin Zuluan, the Wukan organiser, told reporters that
officials also agreed that the village can hold democratic
elections. In China, village committees are in theory elected,
but in practice there are many restrictions -- formal and
informal -- on votes.
(Writing by Chris Buckley; Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in
Hong Kong and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Ken Wills,
Robert Birsel, Alex Richardson and Ron Popeski)