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Updated: December 15, 2011 00:56 IST

A unique protest in China

  • Ananth Krishnan
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A protest in Wukan village, in Guangdong province.
A protest in Wukan village, in Guangdong province.

In land conflicts in China's villages, it is the farmers who are usually evicted.

But in the southern Chinese village of Wukan this week, a first-of-its-kind rebellion by 20,000 villagers over a land conflict has forced out the entire local government, Communist Party leadership and police forces, sparking clashes that resulted in an unprecedented siege of the village, located in prosperous southern Guangdong province, on Wednesday.

According to accounts from witnesses posted on Chinese websites, the village has now been surrounded by thousands of riot police, while villagers had barricaded themselves in by blocking roads with trees and rocks.

The siege of Wukan was the denouement of more than three months of protests over land acquisition, seen as the biggest driver of the more than 180,000 “mass incidents” Chinese authorities record every year.

Local authorities had recently appeared willing to address grievances over what villagers said was inadequate land compensation, when they welcomed a group of residents, elected by the local community to represent the farmers' interests, to negotiate.

However, the chief negotiator, Xue Jinbo, was subsequently held by authorities and died in custody this week. The Lufeng city government, which oversees Wukan, said in a statement he died of heart problems, though Wukan's residents widely suspected he was murdered while in custody.

Following Xue's death and after months of stalled negotiations with local officials, the residents of Wukan decided enough was enough, storming the local police station and clashing with police.

By Wednesday, authorities had been driven out of the village, with both the local police station as well as the Communist Party's local offices reported as being deserted, and Wukan village — in a likely first in China's modern history — being entirely controlled and administered by its residents.

Photographs posted on Chinese websites showed thousands of villagers holding banners and marching at the village square. A photograph of Xue was plastered on the empty police station's front gates.

Battalions of riot police, some armed with machine guns, appeared to have the village surrounded. Villagers were quoted as saying authorities were banking on ending the siege by blocking food supplies from nearby towns from entering Wukan.

An earlier resolution to the stand-off could materalise on Thursday, when the county government will hold a meeting in Lufeng city and Beijing also likely to dispatch officials to the scene. Conflicts over the sale of farmland in Wukan to a private developer have been running for several months, even sparking a riot in September.

Villagers in Wukan have demanded that officials return Xue's body, as well as suspend plans to acquire lands for a development project.

It remains unclear whether the local officials will concede to the demands, or on the other hand use greater force to disperse the protests.

The incidents have been reported by Chinese microbloggers, with photographs circulating online.

This week's incident came as China's highest leaders met in Beijing for an annual economic work conference. The meeting, chaired by President Hu Jintao, concluded with a declaration that the focus of China's economic development in the coming year would be “making progress while maintaining stability.”

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