20 years of anger unleashed
Year after year, the people of Wukan saw their collective farmland being lost to developers. Little by little it also became clear to them that the Guangdong village's leaders had cheated them out of their rightful compensation. One day, they could take no more.
'We've tolerated things for almost 20 years and this is the end of our patience,' one villager said after 3,000 residents marched on the city of Lufeng, which oversees Wukan, to deliver a petition.
Their action escalated into a riot. Villagers attacked the village committee and damaged police vehicles. Police responded by making arrests. One of those detained, Xue Jinbo, died in custody on December 11, stoking tensions. The protests brought big gains for the villagers, with senior provincial officials meeting them to offer concessions, among them the release of four other village leaders in detention. Following this, they ended their protest. The four were freed on December 22 and 23.
The Wukan dispute was just one among the thousands of land disputes on the mainland last year. (As patches of farmland have been industrialised, farmers have become aware of their land rights and sought to assert them.) But it stood out because for the first time in such a dispute, villagers raised banners saying they were 'opposing dictatorship' - a declaration that drew wide attention on the internet, but which they say may have been misinterpreted. 'Don't get us wrong,' one of the protest leaders said. 'We are not against the Communist Party. We are only opposing the dictatorship of the village officials.'
As the protesters tell it, corrupt officials sold or leased vast swathes of the village's collective land over the past 20 years. There were protests and petitions before, but nothing like December's outburst.
It's not known just how much land was sold off in the deals that led to that outburst. Huang Xianjia, director of the Lufeng government news office, was quoted by national magazine Life Weekly as saying the land at issue was around 30 hectares. But members of a newly formed village council estimated it was up to 660 hectares.
The latest dispute began in September, when villagers saw bad omens: outsiders working on what had been farmland, and a signboard for Guangdong real estate giant Country Garden. 'This is the last large piece of land in the village,' Zhuang Liehong, one of the five villagers arrested by police, was quoted by Life Weekly as saying.
As with most land transactions, the villagers knew nothing about how Country Garden had secured the land and they had a devil of a time when they tried to find out.
'The people working on site said they had bought the land from the village. So we asked the village committee. They said they didn't sell the land; and we asked the city government, and they said it was the business of the village,' Hong Ruichao , another of the five arrested villagers, said.
Zhuang said several angry young people used loudspeakers to call on the villagers to organise a collective petition. Zhuang, who helped organise that petition on September 2, was arrested on December 3. He was released 20 days later.
Zhuang says his awakening occurred when he was a migrant factory worker in the Pearl River Delta. That's when he found out that many villagers elsewhere had incomes from dividends on collective-land sales.
'Before that, I thought the land in the village belonged to the party secretary,' Zhuang said, according to Life Weekly. 'He could deal with the land however he wished.'
According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' annual report on urban development for 2011, up to 50 million farmers have lost land and the number is increasing at a rate of three million each year.
More than 10,000 villagers live in Wukan, a coastal village 120 kilometres east of Hong Kong and the largest village in Lufeng. Most make their living from fishing, various businesses or working in the Pearl River Delta. It's a comparatively rich village; a good many have built multi-storey houses.
Farming has been on a steady retreat over the past 20 years, as officials converted farmland to non-agricultural uses bit by bit, selling the collectively owned blocks at their discretion, according to villagers.
The conversions began in the early 1990s, around the time the village committee started the Wukan Port Industrial Development Company. The company's corporate representative and general manager was Xue Chang , the village's party secretary. 'Most of the village land has been sold through that company,' Hong said.
Another big player was a Wukan-born businessman from Hong Kong named Chen Wenqing, the corporate representative of Lufeng Fengtian Livestock Products. Townspeople call him the 'land king' because his company has acquired so much land from the committee over the years.
In the recent dispute, villagers believed Country Garden obtained part of the land through Fengtian Livestock and part from the village committee. But no one knew what exactly had happened.
'Most of the land in the village has been sold by the village committee,' Hong said. 'They sold it as if the land were owned by their families. We knew nothing about when it was sold, to whom it was sold, where the money went, or how the money was spent.'
It was not until the villagers broke into the committee's offices in September that they found documents signed in the 1990s about the sale of their collective land over the years.
As villagers tell it, they received only 550 yuan (HK$670) in compensation from the government for all the land lost - 500 yuan for the government takeover of land used to build roads, and 50 yuan for the sale of land for housing.
In one early transaction, Wukan Port Industrial Development teamed up with Chen Wenqing's Hong Kong real estate company to create the Lufeng Jiaye Development Company. The village was to provide 80 hectares of tidal flats and the Hong Kong company was to invest HK$22 million to develop the land. The profits were to be halved between the two partner companies, according to Life Weekly.
However, villagers said no profit ever came to them. The village committee did spend part of the proceeds on public services, but the accounts had never been made public.
'The collective enterprise has never asked villagers for their opinions,' a villager said. 'No one knows exactly what land was sold to whom. They just put out a notice and asked us to remove the crops or trees, and not to bury dead people here.'
Villagers clearly remembered losing dozens of hectares in the early 1990s. It was laid waste by the actions of village officials, said Yang Semao , head of the provisional Wukan village council.
Some rich and powerful villagers related to members of the official village committee built fish ponds by the sea and drew seawater into the ponds to raise shrimp and crabs. The seawater damaged the nearby paddy fields and the soil was soon a saline wasteland.
In places the super typhoons of the early 1990s forced seawater into the coastal farmland. Xue suggested filling in the damaged farmland with sea sand, and turning it over to housing. They did - and ended up damaging adjacent fertile land. Hong described the officials' behaviour as 'plundering a burning house'.
This year, when Wukan villagers received no response to their petition to the Lufeng city government, they realised that their pleas would go nowhere so long as party secretary Xue Chang and village chief Chen Shunyi held power. The two had clung to their posts for 41 years, until their dismissal on December 9. Both are now under investigation for corruption.
'We had three requests: to have our land back, to dismiss Chen and Xue, and make public all of the village's financial records,' a villager said.
Until December, Xue and Chen seemed entrenched. A 2009 article extolling Xue, who became party chief in 1970, is on the website of the Shanwei government, the city that oversees Lufeng. 'He has been successively elected as Guangdong congress member for four years,' the article said. Villagers denied ever voting for Xue or Chen, either as village committee or congress members.
The village committee announced the results of local congress elections on September 29, seven days after the villagers attacked the village committee, Life Weekly reported. The results showed Xue and Chen each got around 80 per cent of the votes in their respective elections.
'Apparently they played tricks,' Yang said. 'How could they have that support when the people had already stood up against them?'
Yang, for one, had already showed his opposition. He made a name for himself in the village in June when he said he wanted to run in the election for the village committee. It was, he says, more a ploy for attention than a bid for power. 'I think I am not qualified for the committee. However, I wanted to break their monopoly. I want to let them know people were dissatisfied with the candidates they had appointed.'
Declaring his wish to be a candidate Yang promised to set up a village congress of 40 residents to monitor the work of the official village committee and reclaim the illegally seized land by resorting to the law.
In September, villagers rewarded Yang's grit by naming him president of their provisional village council, which has since been recognised by the provincial government.
This proportion of mainland farmers who have lost land struggle to make a living, says the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences