Wukan living in fear of spies and harassment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2012, 12:00am


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Fear and uncertainty still grip the village of Wukan, despite the rosy picture painted by the authorities after a village election last weekend.

The election restored governance to the remote fishing community in eastern Guangdong after the eviction of its previous leaders, following protests that began in September over fraudulent land deals.

Villagers are now building a library with donated books and concentrating their efforts on negotiating the return of stolen land. Exactly how they will be able to retrieve it remains unclear.

One thing is certain: while the details of the land deals are being worked out, Wukan's young activists and volunteers from outside the village are being spied upon regularly and subjected to harassment.

Xue Jianwan, the eldest daughter of the village protest leader who died in custody at the start of the protests, Xue Jinbo, is a local celebrity. Her every move is closely watched by the media and the authorities.

Her decision to run for a key position on the village committee has left her jobless. She received 2,118 votes but withdrew from the election at the last minute when her grandmother threatened to swallow poison if she stayed in the race.

Pressure is mounting on others, too. Hong Ruichao said he was trailed when visiting Donghai township, and another young activist, Zhang Jianxing, was followed by state security personnel around the clock during the election to prevent him from contacting an American diplomat who had expressed interest in meeting him.

Meanwhile, Xiong Wei, a scholar offering advice on Wukan's election, has been under official surveillance and warned to lay low. Xiong posted a microblog entry this week asking for help in finding a temporary home after suddenly being evicted by his landlord, a tactic commonly used by the authorities to silence dissidents.

On the one hand, the authorities offered an olive branch to defuse tensions and end a defiant stand-off that had lasted for months. But on the other hand, villagers now live in fear of revenge. It is all making people question just how far the mainland's grass-roots democratic movement can progress this time.

Many observers have compared Wukan with another Guangdong village, Taishi, which launched a massive protest against government land grabs that ended with a violent crackdown.

Taishi, population 2,000, is a 45-minute drive south of Guangzhou, the provincial capital. It was once a model village, just like Wukan, but its residents complained of poverty despite the bustling shops, busy factories, thriving sugar cane farms and banana plantations standing on land they used to farm. The village, in Guangzhou's Panyu district, became a focal point of international media interest in 2005 after residents fought for the removal of their village chief, whom they accused of involvement in corrupt land deals. Villagers engaged in protests and hunger strikes, battled police and fought off attacks by gangsters. But their campaign failed and activists, scholars and lawyers who helped them were punished by the authorities.

Legal activist Guo Feixiong, also known as Yang Maodong, was released from Meizhou Prison less than two weeks before the Wukan protests erupted in September. He had been jailed since 2007 and fined 40,000 yuan (HK$49,000) and now suffers from frail health as a result of his time in prison. His wife and children have fled to the United States.

The Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling, whose involvement in Taishi saw him stripped of his licence to practice law, said it was hard to determine whether Taishi had led to any significant social and economic changes. However, he said, the Taishi protests had suggested a model for resistance against institutionalised corruption.

Tang visited Wukan for two days in December to study its protest model, and paid tribute to Xue Jinbo. Upon his return home, Tang was taken away by police. He was detained and sent on compulsory trips out of Guangzhou for a week, escorted by state security personnel.

Xue Jinbo was arrested in December along with three other Wukan protest leaders. He failed to return alive, and villagers say they will never know the true circumstances of his death. His family made a deal with the authorities to stop pursuing the truth in exchange for the speedy release of his body, and they also received 900,000 yuan in compensation for their loss. Xue's body was held by the authorities after police said he died of a heart attack while in custody. Villagers suspect he died of police brutality.

At the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing this week, the Guangdong party secretary, Wang Yang, pledged to extend the Wukan model for resolving land problems to the rest of Guangdong by the second half of this year.

But it will take time for Wang to prove his sincerity in promoting grass-roots democracy and convince people that it is not just another political show to garner support for his expected promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee this autumn.