Villager Dies, Wukan Under Siege (Updated)

A man held by police for allegedly participating in land grab protests in rural Guangdong province died on Monday after several days in custody. From Reuters:

The man died as riot police moved to quell a longstanding dispute in Wukan village on the coast of the booming province and economic powerhouse, where commercial and industrial development has consumed swathes of rice paddies.

Villagers say hundreds of hectares have been acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers.

The government in Shanwei, an area that includes Wukan, said that Xue Jinbo fell ill on Sunday, his third day in detention. Hospital doctors later pronounced him dead.

In an apparent effort to head off further trouble in the area that saw hundreds of riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesting, rock-pelting villagers on Sunday, officials immediately notified Xue’s family and offered aid.

Xue, along with four others, was detained for his alleged role in protests that simmered for four days in September. Relatives disputed the official account of his death, according to Reuters, claiming that he had been beaten and tortured. Guangdong, the epicenter of opposition to corrupt land grabs in recent months, has seen both violent riots and peaceful demonstrations as officials have wavered over the most appropriate way to deal with the frequent incidents of unrest. Today, a villager told AFP that police have blocked access to the roads surrounding Wukan and cut off the local Internet connection. From The Telegraph:

“People can’t come in and we can’t go out … We won’t survive if the situation keeps going, as we have no food,” he told AFP by phone in an account confirmed by another resident.

“We normally have to buy food from outside, but we are blocked, so we can’t buy it,” he said.

The Shanwei government said in a separate statement that police had gone to Wukan on Sunday to clear away trees and nail-studded planks laid across roads leading to the village by “criminals”.

One villager told AFP they had put up the blocks to try and stop police from coming and arresting more people.

The government made no mention of police blocking people from coming in or out of the village, and calls to various government and Communist Party departments in the area went unanswered.

Update: The Telegraph’s Malcom Moore has reported from inside Wukan that the village is “now in open revolt” and “for the first time on record, the Chinese Communist Party has lost all control”:

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.

ChinaGeeks has also posted photos from Sina Weibo netizens giving updates from Wukan, as Charles Custer explains the significance of the situation:

I don’t think I need to explain the ways in which this event is amazing, and I mean that in the literal sense of the word. Anyone with a funtional brain and half an eye on the Chinese media is aware that local government land grabs are a huge source of discontent, but if you’d told me a few months ago that a Chinese town would band together, run the local officials out of town, resist a force of 1,000 police officers intent on entering the town again (but, thankfully, not willing to use lethal force to do so, at least not yet), establish their own makeshift government, and keep the whole thing running even this long, I would have told you you were nuts.

Before we go any further, I want to get this out of the way: no, this is not the first spark in some nationwide rebellion that will see the national government overthrown. In fact, it’s not even a rebellion against the central government, as you can tell from the pleas for help from Beijing in Moore’s article.

Still, it puts Beijing in an awfully interesting position. As I see it, they have three basic options:

1. Come to the rescue of the down, declare the local government officials corrupt, put them on trial and restore order peacefully. This is, I suspect, exactly what the people in Wukan want.

2. Come to the rescue of the officials and provide them enough manpower to completely crush the rebellion. This would be easy, but would attract a lot of negative attention internationally, and there’s a risk of it leaking online domestically, too.

3. Do nothing for the time being, and see if the officials can regain control on their own, or if the rebellion spreads.

Update: Malcom Moore, the Telegraph reporter embedded inside the police blockade of Wukan, writes that villagers claim they have enough food to hold out for ten more days:

Almost all the village’s roadside restaurants are shut, but at the market around half the stalls are open. “We think we can last for ten to 12 days,” said Zhang Xiaoping, one stall owner. “We are using a corridor to the next village to smuggle in meat and vegetables on the back of motorbikes, but each trip takes an hour,” she added. “The main problem is rice, but we are taking each day as it comes.”

At the harbour, Wukan’s fleet of fishing boats has also been shut in. “There are some police patrols to stop us leaving the bay, these have gone on for ten days,” said one fisherman, who asked to be named as “United Wukan”. He added that he had already cut down to two meals a day and was prepared, like everyone else in the village “to starve myself to death”.

A video has also surfaced on YouTube of a mourning demonstration held Monday following the news of Xue Jinbo’s death. The crowd chants “Blood debt must be returned by blood,” according to the comment of one viewer.

For more on the ongoing situation in Wukan, follow @MalcolmMoore on Twitter, who is providing details using hashtag #Wukan. Also, Google Plus users can read additional details on how Moore slipped through the roadblock and into Wukan.