LUFENG, China (Reuters) - It was an unusual scene for a Chinese riot -- there was not a single policeman in sight.
In the southern village of Wukan, debris and smashed furniture littered the courtyard of a ransacked government office several days after villagers clashed with officials over illegal land requisition.
Gangs of laughing children bounced up and down on a torn mattress in the courtyard as other villagers went around smashing out the last shards of glass from shattered windows with sticks, while others scoured the gutted rooms for useable items.
“Come up here,” said one child running through the deserted Wukan local Communist Party office and pointing at hundreds of condom packets strewn on the ground amid piles of debris, papers and broken appliances. “Look how corrupt they were.”
The riots earlier this month in Wukan, a suburb of Lufeng city on the eastern flank of economic powerhouse Guangdong province, have again highlighted the specter of rural unrest in China, alarming for its Communist Party rulers.
While the Wukan clashes saw an initial crackdown by authorities on villagers who had gathered to protest dodgy deals involving hundreds of hectares of farmland, the aftermath was highly out of character in a country where the normal response to unrest is to “strike hard” with an iron fist.
Instead, authorities seemed to melt from sight for several days, a stark contrast to other “mass incidents” in Guangdong and elsewhere in China in recent years where the police presence has been typically overwhelming.
It was unclear if the softer line spells a trend for handling future unrest, or involved direct intervention by the province’s reform-minded party chief Wang Yang. But the tactics did succeed in heading off an incident that could have been a powder keg, and a political headache for Wang.
“Sometimes the lack of reaction is a paralysis and sometimes it’s an attempt to defuse the situation,” said Nicolas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I think the police in China want to be as professional as possible, to have no ideological blinders in a sense, and if the best way is to give way and let people rampage for two days, they will do it.”
Six years ago, Guangdong was roiled by severe clashes in Dongzhou Township and Taishi village, also over corrupt land deals, that saw a brutal security crackdown.
In Dongzhou, authorities shot dead three people “in alarm” when villagers stormed a wind power plant while in Taishi, hired thugs and riot police terrorized villagers, roughed up journalists and sealed off the area.
The stakes are high for Wang, in charge of the affluent province a short drive from the financial hub of Hong Kong.
Wang recently coined a “Happy Guangdong” model of development to even out economic imbalances and emphasize social harmony, and is widely expected to be promoted to China’s highest ranks in a watershed leadership transition next year.
“He has a short-term agenda, which is to survive and protect his image until next year,” said Jean Pierre Cabestan, a professor of politics at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.
Wang has had two recent and serious tests, the latest in Wukan. Only in June, Guangdong was riven by riots in the city of Zengcheng, outside the booming provincial capital Guangzhou which had just hosted the 2010 Asian Games. Thousands of migrant workers rampaged, torching police stations and cars over several days.
The mood in Zengcheng was tense and authorities took no chances, mobilizing thousands of riot police, swiftly reclaiming a police station, clearing away charred hulks of torched vehicles, and keeping security forces deployed for weeks afterwards to guard against fresh trouble.
The response to the Wukan incident “perhaps indicates a new tactic for Guangdong. Party Secretary Wang Yang has pledged to increase the amount of harmony in Guangdong, even if it means lower growth,” said Victor Shih, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois.
While the hands-off approach in Wukan may not herald a trend, China’s crowd control tactics and riot management strategies have shown signs of evolving. Recent examples of official capitulation include the shutdown of a petrochemical plant in the northeastern city of Dalian that was blamed for a toxic spill scare and had sparked large-scale demonstrations.
In Wukan, aggrieved villagers said they had patiently lobbied local authorities six times over the past few years to investigate corrupt officials colluding with developers, and saw the storming of government buildings as a symbolic victory against the abuse of power.
“They took my family land, how dare they do this,” said a bespectacled villager surnamed Zhang in a black T-shirt. A red banner draped over the entrance of the gutted office and smashed metal gates declared: “Return Our Land. Return our livelihood.”
A former deputy editor-in-chief of the official party newspaper, the People’s Daily, said the number of “mass incidents” in China, an official euphemism for social disorder, was consistently above 90,000 per year from 2007 to 2009.
Land disputes are now among the most explosive issues facing China today, as increasing land prices provide a massive incentive for corruption and lead to patronage networks of officials and businessmen.
Joseph Fewsmith, a China expert at Boston University, said in a report that after China abolished agricultural taxes in 2006, conflicts between local cadres and farmers had centered on requisition of land. Land and Resources Ministry received “hundreds of thousands” of complaints from farmers every year, he said, citing the progressive Southern Weekend newspaper.
Conflicts over the estimated 200,000 hectares of land requisitioned from farmers in China each year accounted for more than 65 percent of rural mass incidents, the Beijing-based China Economic Times has reported.
With the scrapping of agricultural taxes, land sales have become the main source of income for local governments, raising the stakes and rewards of requisitioning land for development.
Evidence of the yawning wealth gap and the resented land requisitions is apparent across China, and Wukan is no exception.
New developments have sprouted up on farmland in recent years including the palatial Lufeng city government headquarters, a holiday hotel resort featuring an avenue of 60 salmon-pink luxury villas, and a neon-bathed “Golden Sands” nightclub where leggy hostesses entertain patrons who arrive by chauffeur-driven cars from as far afield as Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong.
This underlying bitterness coalesced into a unified defiance against authorities in Wukan. When hired thugs began beating the elderly and children who had gathered peacefully in protest, the villagers’ backlash was fierce, villagers said.
“They were like mad dogs, beating everyone they saw,” said Wukan resident Wu Suidu. “They arrested a few villagers so we surrounded the police station until they released people.”
Instead of sending in fresh reinforcements after being forced to flee, Lufeng authorities deserted the town, later extending an olive branch and holding talks with villagers.
The villagers agreed to a temporary truce after Lufeng officials promised to probe the land grab claims and consider allowing a village election to vote for a clean and fair representative for land negotiations in future.
Four days after the riots and abandoning their posts, police and local officials returned to town peacefully, senior village representative Yang Semao told Reuters by telephone.
“There was some tension when they came back. But things are back to normal. My family is a little concerned for me after this trouble, after what the entire village did, but we only did it to fight for the village’s rights,” Yang said.
“The officials said they couldn’t promise not to charge any villagers for the trouble, but said they’d try to deal with things with a light touch.”
Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in Hong Kong and Michael Martina in Beiing, editing by Brian Rhoads and Raju Gopalakrishnan