Wukan: China's Rebel Village

A long, unpaved rural path leads to a besieged village named Wukan, located in Shanwei city in Guangdong Province. A formerly sleepy coastal fishing village of 13,000 residents about 150 km from Hong Kong, it had never been visited before by foreigners.

Now it is the center of international attention, raising questions whether it could be the spark for wider protests by dispossessed and angry villagers across China. It appears to be first time in decades that the Chinese Communist Party has completely lost control over its territory. The villagers were furious about the expropriation of their farmland by officials for personal benefit disguised as so-called “real estate development” by what is said to be a Hong Kong-based property developer.

The villagers say they only want their land back and for justice to be done after the murder of one of their leaders. They also say they want a fair and transparent election to replace the ousted officials and police, who they drove out on Dec. 10, leaving it unattended. That doesn't bother the residents. A temporary village committee has been established for self-governance. A few dozen villagers keep guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the entrance, which is surrounded by a heavy police presence. The villagers, however, have blocked the main road with tree trunks and branches to defend against police intrusion following a series of incidents.

And, although authorities have agreed that the officials are at fault, the villagers promise another protest tomorrow. Although police have blocked roads and stopped food supplies from entering, several thousand protesters are expected to march to a nearby town unless their farmland is returned, the local officials are kicked out and the villagers in custody are freed.

The most serious incident occurred just a few weeks ago when the 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, one of the leaders of the newly established committee, was kidnapped by thugs from outside when he was dining out, and soon died during interrogation by police, who said he had been stricken with a heart attack. Xue’s family refuses to believe that he died of a heart attack, as announced by the local government. It is commonly accepted that he was probably been beaten to death in the detention center.

After Xue’s death, the villagers started a security team to protect their leaders and guard the entrance. Despite the peril, inside the village I was astonished to see how decisive and unfazed the residents are in the midst of the fear and wrath. They organize protests and rallies again and again, hoping that the central government would look down and give them a hand.

“Down with the corrupted officials!” ”Long live the Communist Party!” “We beg the central party to help us!” the villagers clamor indefatigably.

A group of children took me to view the closed school, police station and former village committee. They also told me how corrupt the officials are, pointing out the front of their luxury houses and the slum conditions in the village.

However, the reaction of the Communist Party toward such unrest is depressingly familiar. Party leaders are well aware that handling the protest softly would encourage disgruntled farmers and workers across the entire country where similar appropriations have taken place, often at the hands of officials themselves.

Even the villagers who believe in the party are not sure what result the lasting conflict will lead to. One organizer said that they are still afraid of the surrounding police and do not dare to demonstrate outside the village despite their solidarity inside it.

As far as they are concerned, they say, the unrest in Wukan is absolutely not an insurgency. They still trust the ability of the party and the state to appease the conflict, they say. Zhang Jianxing, a young man in his 20s, has been assigned to deal with journalists who have sneaked into the village from around the globe. He told one Hong Kong magazine that he is flustered by the title “revolt” in news reports for fear that it would make them appear to be at loggerhead with the state, at least from the authorities’ point of view.

The president of the committee Lin Zule, told reporters the villagers have refused to negotiate the government since the authorities haven’t returned the body of Xue Jinbo at their request. The talks between the villager committee and government are still continuing up till now. They both know that the stalemate won’t last forever.

With foreign reporters staying in the village, the feeling is that the government won’t resort to force. After I left on Sunday night with my SD card hidden in my sock, prominent Chinese intellectuals including Yu Jianrong, Xiong Wei and Ai Xiaoming have joined the Wukan protesters. The feeling is that their arrival will bring optimism, hope and support to the village at stake since the foreign journalists will be leaving soon for the Christmas holidays.

On Dec. 20, as the political pressure has grown on the government, the Shanwei municipal authorities acknowledged that Wukan’s former officials had been at fault. They promised to offer compensation to the villagers. Although the village ruling committee hasn’t responded, in this case, it appears that the issue will be resolved peacefully in the near future.

However, these things don’t always end the way they are supposed to. The leaders of the protest including Lin and Zhang could possibly be punished relentlessly after attention turns away from the village.

(Terence Shen is a Chinese journalist based in Hong Kong.)