The villagers of Wukan in southern China say officials have been stealing their land for decades, so when a major deal involving yet more land was announced in September, their anger boiled over.
The villagers marched to a nearby police post and violent clashes ensued. Since then, Wukan has driven out local Communist leaders who residents say have ruled the village as despots.
Local party secretary Xue Chang (薛昌), who villagers say ran the fishing and farming village as a private fiefdom for more than 40 years, fled following the September protests with other party officials.
For more than a week, Wukan’s 13,000 residents have been in open revolt against officialdom, blockaded by large numbers of riot police who stand at the village perimeter.
The September riots followed the announcement of a lucrative housing project on more Wukan farmland. Villagers tried to block workers from the construction site and the next day truck-loads of police arrived.
Dramatic footage seen by Agence France-Presse (AFP) shows police kicking and beating villagers, who fought back, driving them away.
The current stand-off was triggered when Xue Jinbo (薛錦波), who was elected as a community leader after the party figures were driven out, was arrested along with four other villagers.
“We have raised the land issue for years, we have petitioned the governments in Lufeng and in [provincial capital] Guangzhou many times. They only ignore us,” said a villager surnamed Zhang, 44. He said his family’s plot of farmland was taken from him in 1995.
“When they sold my land, I didn’t get any compensation, they didn’t even tell me they sold it. When I raised the issue, they told me my property deed was invalid,” he said, holding up the 1953 document his grandfather handed down to him.
Xue Chang, who is believed to be in his early seventies, ran a property development company with fellow leaders, which villagers said colluded with other real-estate firms to benefit from requisitioned land.
They said more than half their traditional farmlands were requisitioned for Xue’s projects — which included flooding about 46 hectares of rice paddy with salt water in a failed attempt to build a crab and shrimp farm.
“Xue Chang is a dictator who has ruled with an iron fist. He has good connections with the higher-ups,” a villager surnamed Chen said.
“He has instilled fear in everyone. If you even showed dissatisfaction in front of him, he would send thugs to beat you up. That was how he was able to rule for 42 years,” Chen said.
Local government officials refused to discuss Xue Chang’s situation when contacted by AFP yesterday, but earlier said “a few” officials were under investigation.
Last Sunday, events took an ugly turn when Xue Jinbo — it is not clear whether he and Xue Chang were related — died in police custody.
Authorities say the 42-year-old man suffered a heart attack, while family members who saw the body said they believed he had been beaten to death.
As cordons of police and riot squads blocked the main roads in and out of Wukan this week, villagers appealed to the national government to come to their aid, saying this was their only hope.
“[Chinese] Premier Wen Jiabao [溫家寶] is the only one who can solve this problem; everyone hopes he will come and resolve this,” said an unemployed woman surnamed Lu, who also said that her farmland had been seized.