WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Residents of a rebel village in southern China on Monday threatened to march on a local government office in protest over lost land and a suspicious death, in a humbling rebuff to the ruling Communist Party.
For a week, residents of Wukan, a village in Guangdong province, have driven off officials and police, and held protests in outrage at the death in custody of Xue Jinbo, an organizer of a months-long campaign over former farmland that residents say was taken illegally for development.
At a rally in the square, a village representative, Yang Semao, signaled that the residents would not back down by calling for a protest march on Wednesday to the nearby urban authority, stepping up their campaign of disobedience.
Yang said he did not believe the government would respond to their march with an armed crackdown.
“Parents can’t harm their children,” he told Reuters. “The central government should use Wukan as an example to solve all the land grab disputes.
“If they don’t meet our requests, the country will be in danger. The rich-poor gap has been widening. Look at how our land has been taken by corrupt officials.”
Hundreds of villagers applauded and shouted “Good!” when he said protest leaders were preparing a new letter to the government calling for the return of their land and answers about Xue’s death.
His eldest daughter, Xue Jianwan, 21, an elementary school teacher, told Reuters that the local government told her uncle that “if my father’s body is returned, it’ll inflame emotions among the villagers.”
Residents said they held out hope the central government would step in and redress their grievances which they said were against local authorities.
“Long live the Communist Party,” “Return me my home and garden” and “Long live the central government” as they pumped their fists into the air.
At the town’s main square, one 12-year-old girl knelt before a Reuters reporter begging for their pleas to be put to the central government in Beijing.
“Please save us in Wukan, the Wukan peoples’ lives are terrible,” said Hong Xiaoqing, tears streaming down her face. “The greedy officials have sold all our land. Please tell them to return the men they’ve taken away.”
But some said they were braced for a crackdown, and village men guarded barricades to block police.
“If they have guns, we have rocks,” said a villager surnamed Li. “If they want us to die, it’s OK too. We don’t have any land left anyway.”
At night, 50 or so men stood watch at a road turnoff leading into the besieged village, and solemnly explained how they would defend against a crackdown, certain it would come.
On deserted roads, men carried large sticks as they patrolled on motorcycles.
“We can’t sleep well at night. We know they will snatch the village representatives,” said a villager surnamed Zhu.
Protests such as Wukan’s do not threaten Communist Party power, but do lay bare discontent against corruption, land seizures and official highhandness that is corroding party authority at the grassroots.
Residents say hundreds of hectares of land was acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers. Anger in the village boiled over in September this year after repeated appeals to higher officials. Residents ransacked a government office and skirmished with police.
The government of Shanwei, the area including Wukan, said last week that some Communist Party members and officials accused of misdeeds over the disputed land were detained and that the main land development project had been suspended.
But villagers’ fury has turned to Xue’s death — which the government says was due to a heart attack, not physical abuse — and demands that officials hand his body over to his family.
At one house, bags of rice were stockpiled — donations from wealthy villagers to be distributed to the other villagers.
“With so much media attention on it, I don’t think they’ll make a wild move,” said Lin Zulan, 65, referring to a possible crackdown. “If anything happens, we’ll sit down and not allow them to touch us.
China’s state-controlled media have reported sporadically on the protests, only citing official statements. Checks for “Wukan” on microblogging sites have been blocked, reflecting official wariness about spreading news about the confrontation.
Writing by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher