Wukan Rejects Ransom, Siege Continues (Updated)

The siege of Wukan continued Thursday, with the village still in “open revolt” following the death of Xue Jinbo, who had been held in detention for several days for his suspected involvement in protests against illegal land grabs in September. Malcolm Moore, the Telegraph reporter who evaded the police blockade and provided updates yesterday from within the village, has pulled out and explained why in a Google Plus post. Yesterday evening, he reported that villagers rejected a ransom proposal from a representative of the expelled government to release the four men still held in custody, as well as the body of Xue Jinbo, in exchange for an end to the ongoing protests:

The government sent an uncle of one of the prisoners, 21-year-old Zhang Jiancheng, to plead for the village to accept the deal.

“He came this morning and said that if we tear down our barricades, remove our banners and return to normal life, the government would not make any more arrests, would release its prisoners and release Xue Jinbo’s body,” said Yang Semao, one of the village’s representatives.

However, Mr Yang said the village had turned down the offer, and vowed to fight on, despite only having enough food left for ten more days of the siege. He added that another government employee, a family friend of his mother, had called on her to warn that her son would be shot on sight and the villagers sent to labour camps. “All they can do at the moment is make threats, but anyone can see they are not credible,” he said.

Moore has continued to provide updates on the “delicate” situation via Twitter using the hashtag #Wukan, after reporting yesterday that villagers claimed to have enough food to hold out for ten days. This afternoon, he tweeted that the government had brought 30 bags of rice into the village and offered it in exchange for signatures, which villagers say “will be used to indicate approval for the property development.”

Meanwhile, the acting mayor of Shanwei county (whose jurisdiction includes Wukan) vowed to “hunt down” those believed to be leading the rebellion. From The Telegraph:

In a statement to the Chinese state media, the first published acknowledgement of the ongoing strife in Wukan, Mr Wu named two of the village’s representatives, Lin Zulian and Yang Semao, as ringleaders of the protests.

“Since December 8, Lin Zulian and Yang Semao organised and incited the villagers to set up barricades around the village. They did this to prevent officials from entering the village and to stop the perpetrators of the earlier riots from leaving the village and turning themselves into the authorities,” he said.

As it entered the fifth day of its police siege, and as foreign television cameras entered the village for the first time, the collective will of Wukan shows no sign of abating. The villagers, united by their anger at the death of one of their own, Xue Jinbo, in police custody, remain determined to fight against what they see as the theft of their land by their former officials and by property developers.

The government’s strategy now appears to try to divide the village by offering concessions to some while punishing others. Mr Zu said the local Party disciplinary commission has approved “the relevant investigation” into the village’s former leaders, Xue Chang and Chen Shunyi. He added that the controversial property project that ignited the protests in September has been “temporarily frozen”

The Financial Times posted a video with an overview of the situation, one villager’s account of Xue Jinbo’s arrest and a montage of footage showing protests and standoffs with police. Amnesty International has called on China to open an investigation into Xue’s death to prove their assertion that he did not die from ill treatment or torture, and to cease violent and illegal land grabs. The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report published a series of photos from Wukan, and reported today that the government remains defiant about accusations of illegal land grabs but confident that it will reel in the rogue village:

A press officer for the local government denied that any land grab had occurred, although he did acknowledge that villagers were angry over a land issue. He said the local government understood local concerns, and the situation would be resolved either this week or next.

“It will absolutely have a smooth resolution,” the official said.

Despite the government’s hard-line stance, Bloomberg reports that the CCP has halted a local real estate development project and launched an investigation into the actions of local officials. The local government also published footage showing relatives visiting the four people still in detention, in an attempt to show that they had not been abused, but villagers claimed such gestures did nothing to defuse their anger and pledged to continue the grassroots movement. From Reuters:

“The whole village is distraught and enraged. We want the central government to come in and restore justice,” said one resident.

Two residents, speaking on condition of anonymity, said villagers were preparing another rally over last weekend’s death in custody of Xue Jinbo, 42, who had been detained on suspicion of helping organise protests there against land seizures.

BBC News notes that China’s Great Firewall has blocked all Internet searches for Wukan, though some netizens within the village have scaled the censors to post their own accounts of the siege. ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer has kept tabs on Sina Weibo chatter throughout the incident, and observed that netizens are referring to Xue and the other detained villagers as heroes. A number of Weibo posts have not been deleted, some of which include photos from earlier this year showing police brutality in broad daylight, he says:

Another thing that has struck me reading through these accounts is that these people are not dissidents, at least not in the same sense as someone like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei. Most of the Weibo accounts I found belonged to young people, and interspersed with the political messages about their hometown and what’s happening there, there are normal posts about all the things you would expect: the weather, school, cute girls (or boys), funny animations, etc.

I feel certain that somewhere after this is over, there will be people who will be looking to write these people off the way they write off any dissident activity in China. But these are not, by and large, dissidents, or even people who seem to be particularly politically inclined, from what I can tell of their Weibo histories. They’re just people who’ve been forced into an extreme political situation and have chosen to stand up for themselves rather than backing down. Good for them. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re being funded by the NED or being misled by Western propagandists. That’s bullshit.

They also are very aware of the thin ice they’re walking on. It seems clear the decision to rise up was not one they came to lightly. Rather, they were pushed to it, it seems, by the wanton greed and utter stupidity of the local authorities.

The New York Times writes that the protests in Wukan, while unusual in their longevity, mark the latest in a growing number of “mass incidents” in China prompted by a range of social and economic grievances. China specialist Kelley Currie told The Diplomat that the revolt in Wukan indicates that government control can often seem more firm than it really is:

“The party-state has become so reliant on enforcing a kind of ‘rigid’ stability that involves buying off anyone who can be bought off with economic goods, and crushing those who can’t,” she says.

“Increasingly, however, the costs of buying people off are getting out of reach of local municipalities and they are finding that no matter how many police they have, it’s not enough when the whole town decides to stand up against the authorities or when the wholly inappropriate, unnecessary abuse of some citizen gets broadcast via social media.”

Currie says that political reform is the only way out of the “hole that the present system has dug for itself,” but she argues that until now at least the Communist leadership at all levels has shown little appreciation for this.

Also today, TIME’s Austin Ramzy compares the unrest in Wukan to similar situations he has witnessed previously in Guangdong:

Four years ago I visited the village of Xiantang, in Foshan in central Guangdong. Villagers there had also protested, driven the local cadres out and occupied the local government headquarters for several months. The roots of the dispute then were very similar to what is happening today in Wukan. Residents complained that local officials had sold off farmland to build factories and housing, then skimmed the revenues for personal gain. Likewise, questions over land use were at the heart of a 2005 clash between police and residents of Dongzhou, a coastal village near Wukan. At least six people died when the authorities crushed that demonstration. So far, the situation in Wukan has not reached the levels of violence that Dongzhou saw six years ago. While it is unlikely the unrest will spread beyond Wukan, it could certainly escalate there. Villagers are reported to have been preparing homemade weapons to maintain their blockade.

Guangdong is China’s richest and most populous province. Land sales there can lead to huge returns, and also offer great potential for corruption and abuse. What happens in Guangdong is followed closely by the media in nearby Hong Kong, where media outlets are able to report more freely than domestic news outlets. While commentary about the situation is censored on many mainland websites, some questioning of events in Wukan is emerging. On the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog searches for words such as “Wukan” or “Shanwei” are blocked. But one message referring to the situation there was reposted by nearly 4,000 people. “I hear that there is a new kind of cardiac disease. The condition of the dead is very strange,” it reads in part. “It has to occur while in detention. The fingernails of the deceased fall out, and their bones are broken.”

Update: Tom Lasseter, the Beijing Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers, has slipped past the police roadblock and into Wukan. Follow @TomLasseter on Twitter for more on the situation, including quotes from villagers about what they want from the government and their views of Western press arriving in town.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore has reported the arrival of Xinhua in Wukan. He predicts that the government “will try to resolve the issue through negotiation, not violence,” first by trying to divide the village, “separating them from the current village reps” before “the authorities will move in and arrest village reps, while paying others some compensation for the land.”

David Bandurski of The China Media Project recalls Hu Jintao’s July speech to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the CCP and says the situation in Wukan exemplifies the fourth of Hu’s “four dangers,” rampant corruption, the danger which poses the most immediate internal threat to the party and to stability China:

So we have a case here of alleged official corruption — the “fourth danger,” if you will — that has escalated into a crisis situation over (possibly) another grave issue of injustice as leaders in Guangdong have applied heavy-fisted tactics to deal with it. So far, the government response has been to close Wukan off both in terms of security (“stability preservation”) and propaganda policy (“public opinion channeling”).

Finally late yesterday, just minutes before midnight and after a uniform blackout in Chinese media through the day, we had two news stories on Wukan from China News Service, China’s number-two official newswire. The first reported that Shanwei city authorities revealed at a press conference on the Wukan incident (乌坎事件) yesterday that “preliminary investigations have ruled out external force as the cause of death” in Xue’s case. The news story also said that the city’s medical expert shared photos of Xue’s body during the press conference.

All searches for “Wukan” and “Shanwei” on Sina Weibo yield messages that read: “According to relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Wukan’ can not be shown.” Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.”

Clearly Wukan is an object lesson in the dangers of runaway corruption at the local level in China. But it is also, unfortunately, shaping up as a test case in how the government is experimenting with new strategies to shape news coverage on sensitive incidents and issues.

 

Sources:

- “Wukan siege: Chinese officials ‘hold village to ransom’ ” from The Telegraph

- “Chinese government vows to hunt down rebel village ‘leaders’” from The Telegraph

- “Chinese villagers protest over custody death” from The Financial Times

- “China must end land grabs, amid protests over death in custody” from Amnesty International

- “Photos: Wukan Villagers in Open Revolt” from The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report

- “Land Dispute in China Town Sparks Revolt” from The Wall Street Journal

- “China Launches Investigation After Protesters Take Over Village” From Bloomberg Businessweek

- “乌坎“9.21”事件被羁押人员家属探视” from Shanwei Government Official Website

- “China villagers say government steps won’t defuse outrage” from Reuters

- “China protest in Guangdong’s Wukan ‘vanishes from web’” from BBC News

- “The Siege of Wukan, Part III: Making Martyrs” from ChinaGeeks

- “The Siege of Wukan, Part II: Weibo Impressions” from ChinaGeeks

- “Village Revolts Over Inequities of Chinese Life” from The New York Times

- “Wukan Revolts” from The Diplomat

- “Revolt in China: After Protests, a Village Gets Blockaded by Local Authorities” from TIME

- “Wukan and the ‘fourth danger’” from The China Media Project