Saturday, December 17, 2011

Inside Wukan: the Chinese village that fought back -- Village of 20,000 in Open Revolt

Dec. 15, 2011 The Telegraph

The local government brought the village's simmering anger to a boil by
admitting that Xue Jinbo, a 43-year-old butcher who had represented the
villagers in their negotiations with the government, had died in police
custody of 'cardiac failure'

For the first time on record, the Chinese Communist party has lost all
control, with the population of 20,000 in this southern fishing village
now in open revolt.

The last of Wukan’s dozen party officials fled on Monday after thousands
of people blocked armed police from retaking the village, standing firm
against tear gas and water cannons.

Since then, the police have retreated to a roadblock, some three miles
away, in order to prevent food and water from entering, and villagers from
leaving. Wukan’s fishing fleet, its main source of income, has also been
stopped from leaving harbour.

The plan appears to be to lay siege to Wukan and choke a rebellion which
began three months ago when an angry mob, incensed at having the village’s
land sold off, rampaged through the streets and overturned cars.

Although China suffers an estimated 180,000 “mass incidents” a year, it is
unheard of for the Party to sound a retreat.

But on Tuesday The Daily Telegraph managed to gain access through a tight
security cordon and witnessed the new reality in this coastal village.

Thousands of Wukan’s residents, incensed at the death of one of their
leaders in police custody, gathered for a second day in front of a
triple-roofed pagoda that serves as the village hall.

For five hours they sat on long benches, chanting, punching the air in
unison and working themselves into a fury.

At the end of the day, a fifteen minute period of mourning for their
fallen villager saw the crowd convulsed in sobs and wailing for revenge
against the local government.

“Return the body! Return our brother! Return our farmland! Wukan has been
wronged! Blood debt must be paid! Where is justice?” the crowd screamed

Wukan’s troubles began in September, when the villagers’ collective
patience snapped at an attempt to take away their land and sell it to
property developers.

“Almost all of our land has been taken away from us since the 1990s but we
were relaxed about it before because we made our money from fishing,” said
Yang Semao, one of the village elders. “Now, with inflation rising, we
realise we should grow more food and that the land has a high value.”

Thousands of villagers stormed the local government offices, chasing out
the party secretary who had governed Wukan for three decades. In response,
riot police flooded the village, beating men, women and children
indiscriminately, according to the villagers.

In the aftermath, the local government tried to soothe the bruised
villagers, asking them to appoint 13 of their own to mediate between the
two sides – a move which was praised. But after anger bubbled over again
local officials hatched another plan to bring the rebellious village back
under control. Last Friday, at 11.45 in the morning, four minibuses
without license plates drove into Wukan and a team of men in plain clothes
seized five of the village’s 13 representatives from a roadside

A second attack came at 4am on Sunday morning, when a thousand armed
police approached the entrance to the village.

“We had a team of 20 people watching out, and they saw the police
searchlights. We had blocked the road with fallen trees to buy us time,”
said Chen Xidong, a 23 year old. “They banged the warning drum and the
entire village ran to block the police.”

After a tense two-hour standoff, during which the villagers were hit with
tear gas and water cannons, the police retreated, instead setting up the
ring of steel around Wukan that is in force today. The village’s only
source of food, at present, are the baskets of rice, fruit and vegetables
carried across the fields on the shoulder poles of friendly neighbours.

Then, on Monday, came the news that Xue Jinbo, one of the snatched
representatives, had died in police custody, at the age of 43, from a
heart attack. His family believe he was murdered.

“There were cuts and bruises on the corners of his mouth and on his
forehead, and both his nostrils were full of blood,” said Xue Jianwan, his
21-year-old daughter. “His chest was grazed and his thumbs looked like
they had been broken backwards. Both his knees were black,” she added.
“They refused to release the body to us.”

Mr Xue’s death has galvanised his supporters and brought the explosive
situation in the village to the brink. “We are not sleeping. A hundred men
are keeping watch. We do not know what the government’s next move will be,
but we know we cannot trust them ever again,” said Mr Chen. “I think they
will try to prolong the situation, to sweat us out.”

From behind the roadblock, a propaganda war has broken out. Banners slung
by the side of the main road to Wukan urge drivers to “Safeguard stability
against anarchy – Support the government!” Nearby, someone has scrawled,
simply: “Give us back our land.”

The news of Wukan’s loss has been censored inside China. But a blue
screen, which interrupts television programmes every few minutes inside
the village, insists that the “incidents” are the work of a seditious
minority, and have now been calmed. “It is all lies,” said Ms Xue.

Her brother, meanwhile, said life had improved since the first officials
were driven out three months ago. “We found we were better at
administration. The old officials turned out not to have had any accounts
in their office, so they must have been swindling us. And we have a
nightwatch now, to keep the village safe. We have all bonded together,”
said Xue Jiandi, 19.

With enough food to keep going in the short-term and a pharmacy to tend to
the sick, the leaders of Wukan are confident about their situation.

But it is difficult to imagine that it will be long before the Communist
Party returns, and there are still four villagers in police custody.

“I have just been to see my 25-year-old son,” Shen Shaorong, the mother of
Zhang Jianding, one of the four, said as she cried on her knees. “He has
been beaten to a pulp and his clothes were ripped. Please tell the
government in Beijing to help us before they kill us all."

The corporate propagandist and author of the above article, Malcolom
Moore, writes publicly on his Google+ about his personal experience in

We got lucky getting into Wukan. The first stroke of luck was renting a
car in Shenzhen with blacked-out windows so no one could see me inside.
The second stroke of luck was that, as we approached the police roadblock
some three miles outside the village, we fell in behind a car with
government plates.

The police, their machine guns hanging at their waists, waved us through.
Our photographer, travelling a few hours behind us in a taxi, was not so
lucky. He was stopped and escorted the three hours back to Shenzhen.

After we passed through the police roadblock we came to a second barrier,
of trees piled across the road. Around a dozen young men were mulling
around, and we were not sure, from a distance, whether they might be plain
clothes policemen. We parked about a hundred feet from them, took a deep
breath, and stepped out of the car to have a chat.

As we got closer though, it was clear they were villagers. They told us
they had erected their own barrier in case the government tried to sneak
into the village at night. Three of them heaved aside some trees at the
side and let us through.

In any other country it would be hard to describe Wukan (pop 20,000) as a
village. It is a sprawling, built-up mass of three storey houses, with
schools and government buildings lining the main street.

Inside there are now no police, or government officials. It is the first
time I've been anywhere without police in the almost four years I've been
in China and it didn't just feel liberating to me - the villagers are
exuberant. There's a constant buzz of excitement in the air, as young men
run around, using walkie talkies to organise the resistance. Unlike many
villages in the countryside, Wukan is also full of children, who seem to
be enjoying the upheaval and sudden distraction of their parents.

Of course, it cannot last. When I asked how long they expected to hold out
for, and what would happen next, eyes dropped to the ground and the
standard Chinese response of "it's not clear", came back.

But the government will not find it easy to reestablish control. For the
past two days, huge crowds have gather outside the village hall, chanting
together for hours, willing themselves into ever greater displays of
collective emotion.

To my eyes a lot of the wailing and sobbing seemed theatric, but I guess
it must be a filial and social obligation for the mourners to display as
much emotion as they can summon. And there is no doubt it has a strong
unifying effect on the villagers, who feel that they are all in their
predicament together.

It is worth noting that the Shanwei area, where Wukan lies, has some form
when it comes to rebellion. Very poor, and on the coast, smugglers have
operated in Shanwei since Chinese history began. The area is notorious for
being controlled by triads and for its high rate of heroin addiction.

On the motorway, taxis are sometimes hijacked by motorcycle gangs, my
driver said, who is from the neighbouring town of Haifeng. And in the days
before Deng Xiaoping ordered a clean-up, it was said that the smugglers of
Shanwei had a better collection of guns than the army, weapons they have
used in the past to attack the police.

But I've seen little sinister in Wukan since I got here yesterday
afternoon. While the resistance is organised, there is no sign of any
criminal element. Children swarm through the town during the day, and
families retreat to their courtyard homes at night.

Now it is just a question of waiting to see what happens next.

Charlie Custer at Chinese Geek has curated images and accounts of the
Wukan uprising from Chinese social networking site Weibo before they were
censored: The Siege of Wukan
Further context via the bourgeois capitalist blog Shanghiist: Updates from
Wukan, the fishing village staging open rebellion

Video of rally of mourning for Xue Jinbo on Tuesday:

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