It's not too late to solve village row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am


A sustained revolt against authority in a Guangdong village is symptomatic of rising social tensions across China. A new order to police to launch a charm offensive to improve relations with the public is a sign they are causing concern in the top ranks of the Communist Party, ahead of a generational leadership change next year. It is debatable, however, whether better police public relations, such as taking people's complaints more seriously, would have defused the dispute in Wukan village, Lufeng , since it involves local party officials.

The confrontations there are but one among many instances of unrest sparked by corrupt and autocratic rule; often these involve land disputes. What sets this one apart is that it has been allowed to run for so long - even after a rally in September led to claims of outside meddling - offering hopes of a more tolerant governing style in Guangdong. Alas, recent developments have dimmed those hopes. The death of a village representative in custody raised tensions, with nearly half the 13,000 villagers attending a weekend rally to demand the return of his body. Police who fled the village allowed a memorial service on Friday, but blocked roads as they stiffened a ring thrown around the village, raising fears that the stand-off will end badly. Meanwhile, Guangzhou police detained three supporters from elsewhere who protested there in support of the villagers.

Sadly, the root cause is a familiar one. Farmers are angry with village leaders who signed land over to a Hong Kong-listed developer without consultation or compensation - just the latest land grab under a local party chief who has been in office for decades. The authorities' response has been equally predictable. It conforms to the usual line that a small number of instigators with evil intent have stirred up trouble, aggravated by outside or foreign interference.

Land sales are one of the few ways that local officials have of raising significant funds. Being responsible for development and for maintaining social order, they are easily tempted to enhance their record for both by seizing land, then suppressing protests by those with rightful claims to it. Some credit is due to local authorities for allowing peaceful protests to continue for so long. It is regrettable that the death of a village leader has inflamed tensions, with his family rejecting claims that he had a heart attack. But officials continue to go the wrong way about handling such disputes, focusing on dissent instead of the root cause. There needs to be a better mechanism for dealing with them before they get to this stage. Hopefully, the authorities will exercise restraint in the face of a vow of mass physical resistance by villagers. It is too late for a police PR exercise, but the decision by Guangdong to send in officials is a good one. Now there is a need to find a fair resolution to the dispute.