WUKAN, China (Reuters) - 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 mobilized 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 organizer, 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 organizer 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 organizers. 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 organizer, 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.
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 urbanization and industrialization 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 organizer, 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