Wukan Protests: Dabian Hits the Fan

Wukan, the Guangzhou village which has slowly been getting more and more out of hand, seems to have crossed a handful of lines. There are a ton of good stories on this from all over the place- Malcolm Moore was in the village itself and filed this:

Wukan has been encircled by the police cordon since Sunday, after a failed attempt by 1,000 armed police to capture the village. No food or water is allowed in, and no villagers allowed out.

Villagers say that they have enough supplies to hold out for only 10 more days.

But the villagers were unbowed yesterday, and their leaders said they had seen signs that the government would “blink first”.

Trouble in Wukan has been brewing since September, after the fishing village revolted at an attempt to take one of its last parcels of farmland and give it to a major Chinese property developer, Country Garden.

However it was the death of 43-year-old Xue Jinbo, one of the village’s 13 temporary representatives, in police custody that pushed Wukan into its current fury, and saw the last of the village’s dozen Communist party officials flee. His family believes he was murdered.

Thousands of villagers have held daily protest meetings outside the village hall since the news broke on Monday.

He later left the village, explaining:

The first rule of journalism is never to leave a running story.

Especially when you are the only journalist in town.

So why did I pull out of Wukan, slipping back past the police cordon last night down a slip road?

The story in the village is far from over, although I believe the situation is unlikely to change in the next few days, as the two sides tentatively negotiate their way towards a resolution.

The siege continues and on Dec 16 the village will mark the seventh day since Xue Jinbo, one of its representatives, died in police custody, an important public day of mourning.

The reason we had to pull out is because we felt we were putting ourselves and the villagers in danger by staying.

Jonathan Watts of the Guardian once told me, in my first few months in China, that the problem with being a journalist here is that you are surrounded by a ring of fire – you stay safe, but everyone else gets burned.

Custer from ChinaGeeks has been writing about the implications:

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

The last option seems by far the most likely to me, which is good and bad news for the protesters in Wukan. No help is coming from Beijing, but at least that means the PLA probably isn’t coming either.

Of course, the central government isn’t really doing nothing, as mentions of Wukan
are being scrubbed from the media and deleted online. As you would expect, searching for “Wukan” on Weibo gives you the classic “According to the relevant laws, these results can’t be displayed” message.

He also has some pictures that give a sense of the scale. Another post, here, has more pictures and a video from the scene. Meanwhile the WSJ has an article about Wukan which mentions the broader picture of the dangers of land grabs:

Mr. Yu estimates that local officials have seized about 16.6 million acres of rural land (more than the entire state of West Virginia) since 1990, depriving farmers of about two trillion yuan ($314 billion) due to the discrepancy between the compensation they receive and the land’s real market value.

China’s Land Ministry has also warned that misappropriation of farmland has brought the country dangerously close to the so-called red line of 296 million acres of arable land that the government believes it needs to feed China’s 1.34 billion people.

The Land Ministry, which uses satellite imagery to spot abuses, launched a fresh crackdown on illegal land use this year, targeting golf courses, hotels and villas in particular, and has announced several high-profile cases in which officials have been punished.

But the central government’s attempts to curb such abuses, and to draft new legislation that would protect against land grabs and give farmers a market rate for their land, have met fierce resistance from local authorities who rely on land sales to maintain growth, service debt and top up their budgets.

In 2010 alone, China’s local governments raised 2.9 trillion yuan from land sales. And the National Audit Office estimates that 23% of local government debt, which it put at 10.7 trillion yuan in June, depends on land sales for repayment.

Finally, China Media Project has a post about how Beijing is directing the censorship of this case:

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.

The second China News Service report, also based on the press conference, said that “various village officials” from Wukan had been detained for discipline violations.

Curiously, though, there seems to be no coverage of the press conference from other media. That suggests that these stories can be taken as an illustration of “public opinion channeling” tactics at work. The authorities, in other words, are selectively releasing partial information from an official perspective in an attempt to frame and re-direct public attention. Message 1: Xue Jinbo was not killed by police, an assertion that removes the immediate reason for escalated tensions in Wukan. Message 2: local Wukan leaders have been detained for suspected discipline problems, an action that (leaders undoubtedly hope) will remove the initial underlying cause of tensions, alleged dirty land deals.

More as it comes in.

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Filed under corruption, forced demolition, housing bubble, protests

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