Victory over corruption

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am


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The issues

On the mainland, more than half a million villages have been victimised by corrupt land deals caused by rapid urbanisation and non-transparent land laws. But their inhabitants' plight has been rarely heard by the world, or handled fairly by senior government officials.

Zhang Lifan, a historian formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said 'the Wukan model' was a landmark for the resolution of the mainland's many land disputes.

He said Guangdong party chief Wang Yang's remarks - that the dispute would serve as a template to reform the governance of villages and townships at the grass-roots level - showed sound political judgment. 'This incident was a test for Wang, and he made a wise choice - his choice of non-confrontational, peaceful negotiations was a good move for his career.'

On microblogging sites, Wukan is commonly referred to as the 'W village' or Niaoqian village, which is written almost the same in Chinese characters, to avoid the censors.

As developments in Wukan created ripples of hope across the nation, its name has emerged as an example of civil rights. Dozens of internet users, university students and peasants, who have been the victims of similar land seizures, flocked to the village to show their support to villagers or to learn from their experiences.

Yet feelings in Wukan remain tense. One protest leader, Zhuang Liehong, who was released on December 23, told the widow of his fellow protest leader Xue Jinbo: 'He gave his life for Wukan. There is nothing we can do to ever repay him or to compensate his family's loss.'

Tang Jingling, a Guangzhou-based rights lawyer who stayed in Wukan for two days to study the petition set up by villagers, was detained by police on December 18, two days after paying tribute to Xue. He was held until December 20 in two police stations, then forced to travel with his wife - escorted by state security personnel - to Foshan , Zhaoqing and Zhuhai until December 27.

'The Wukan incident reflects classic problems of illegal land seizures faced by Chinese villages,' Tang said. 'It also sets a new standard for the quality and effectiveness of people's petitions.

'Villagers resorted to self-rule and mobilised a mass petition on an unprecedented scale - even children were seen leading the march ... I haven't seen anything like it before.'

Tang praised the villagers for using the organising and connecting power of village clans to mobilise people and for taking advantage of the media to document their battle.

The provincial government's conciliatory gesture was widely seen as a desperate attempt to avoid yet another embarrassing showdown with Wukan villagers. It was a rare compromise by a government best known for a high-handed approach to quelling unrest.

Yet the episode could become a factor in national politics in future. Both Wang, perceived as one of the more liberal leaders, and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai , a hardliner, are eyeing a politburo position.

The peaceful resolution in Wukan will give Wang political credit.

Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst and former professor at Renmin University, said: 'Different officials would have likely driven a different path - one far less disposed to dialogue.'

Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political analyst, said: 'It is hard to see Wukan as a turning point for system reform, because current institutions lack the democratic conditions to demand a transparent administration. Officials are still being told to hide the truth and crack down on mass petitions.'

How long the peace in Wukan will last is unclear, Tang said. 'The open dialogue with the government and the peaceful outcome appear to be random, but it is an inspiring lesson that offers hope. It allows fellow petitioners to see a breakthrough point. This is remarkably significant and should not be underestimated.'

The news

Last September, residents of the eastern Guangdong fishing village of Wukan staged angry protests against local authorities.

Villagers had seen labourers put up a signboard for a huge Guangdong real estate company and start work on their jointly-owned farmland. They denounced officials, who, since 2006, had sold off more than 400hectares of their land without compensation.

They claimed officials had stolen more than 700million yuan (about HK$860million).

The local government promised to investigate the complaints and permitted residents to elect a temporary committee to represent the villagers - an unusual whiff of democracy.

Yet the authorities declared the petitions illegal and police forcefully dispersed protesters. Residents rioted and raided the Communist Party's village office, a police station and several factories.

On December 19, villagers heard of the death in custody of protest leader Xue Jinbo, 42, on December 11. Officials said he had died of natural causes; villagers claimed that police had beaten him to death.

More than 1,000 villagers put up barricades to stop police entering, while a police blockade stopped visitors - and food supplies - getting in.

As villagers awaited a rumoured military crackdown, Zhu Mingguo, deputy party secretary of Guangdong province, suddenly offered residents a peace offering. Villagers cancelled a mass march on Lufeng's government on December 21, where they had planned to demand an inquiry into the land deals and the return of Xue's body. Talks with Zhu led to the street protests ending peacefully.

The provincial government has set up a panel comprising senior Guangdong officials to address the villagers' complaints about land giveaways and fixed elections. Protest leaders were freed, the temporary village committee was ratified, and a second autopsy arranged on Xue's body.

The villagers had won a remarkable victory.

Voices: What people are saying

'No matter how Wukan's battle over land deals turns out in future, today's result is already a spiritual victory for Wukan's people.'

Lin Zuluan, one of Wukan's protest leaders, who is a retiree with a business and military background

'Wukan might not bring about systemic reform, but it is an inspiring lesson for other petitioners, who will deploy the same strategy. This will gradually build up a familiar pattern, which I hope will eventually lead to more transparent policy reform.'

Tang Jingling, a Guangzhou-based rights lawyer

'Under the scrutiny of the international media, the ability to handle mass incidents would definitely score points for Wang [Guangdong party chief Wang Yang]'

Yu Yiwei, vice-president of the Guangdong Humanities Society


Sep 21-23: Wukan villagers and police square off during a massive riot. Dozens of locals and police officers are injured, the local party headquarters is raided and six police cars are overturned, while a handful of others have their windows smashed. The protests over land grabs then spread to neighbouring communities.

Sep 24: Authorities allow Wukan villagers to elect 13representatives to engage in negotiations.

Nov 21: About 5,000 villagers march 7km to the county-level city government office in Lufeng and gather outside the building. They disperse peacefully after Lufeng party secretary Yang Naifa promises a speedy reply.

Dec 9: Protest leader Xue Jinbo and four other village representatives are detained.

Dec 11: Xue dies in police custody.

Dec 12: Authorities announce Xue has died of a heart attack, but villagers accuse police of beating him to death. His death sparks new riots in the village.

Dec 14: Villagers force police and government officials out. Police lay siege to the village, preventing food and goods from entering the village. But many villagers manage to get supplies in by taking little-known goat paths off the main road. Government authorities set up internet censorship against information about Wukan.

Dec 18: The local government summons Lin Zuluan, one of Wukan's representatives, for talks, but the idea is rejected until Xue's body is released. Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling is detained by police for two days. He has stayed in Wukan for two days to study its petition model.

Dec 20: Villagers receive a mass SMS from deputy Guangdong party chief Zhu Mi. The message says the government will guarantee the safety of village representatives that agree to attend talks and will not make further arrests if villagers refrain from 'causing trouble'.

Beijing appoints a working group - led by Zhu, Guangdong vice-governor Lin Musheng and 20 other senior provincial-level officials - to investigate villagers' complaints over corrupt officials, controversial land deals and a lack of democratic elections that sparked the protests.

Wukan residents call off a planned rally in front of the Lufeng city government headquarters and remove barricades at entrances to their village before meeting a senior Guangdong official.

Dec 21: One of the protest leaders Zhang Jiancheng is freed from police detention.

Lin, Zhu and the Shanwei party chief Zheng Yanxiong hold a 90-minute meeting in Lufeng. After the initial talks, Lin says the village has achieved a 'rather ideal' solution. Zhu and Zheng acknowledge the wrongdoings of an individual corrupt official and promise to return Xue's body.

Dec 23: Two more protest leaders, Hong Ruichao and Zhuang Liehong, are released on bail.