Village protesters demand democracy

More than 6,000 residents protesting against a government land grab rallied in the blockaded village of Wukan in Guangdong yesterday, demanding democratic elections and the return of the body of a protest leader who died in police custody about a week ago.

Tensions were high a day after family and friends held a memorial service for 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, who was taken away by police on December 9 and died two days later. Police say Xue died of a heart attack but relatives say he was beaten to death.

Lin Zulian, a representative of the demonstrators, vowed to march to Lufeng municipal offices if Xue Jinbo's body was not returned within five days. According to local custom his body should have been buried yesterday.

Lin also said life was getting tougher as police are preventing supplies of food and other necessities going into the village.

The blockade follows a series of demonstrations by villagers who accuse officials of selling 1,666 hectares of village land without consulting or compensating residents.

The villagers gathered in a public square yesterday afternoon to shout slogans such as 'Give our land back' and 'We are innocent, and corrupt officials put us in jeopardy'.

High school pupils then led a march around the village - including through a police station and community building vacated two weeks ago after repeated confrontations - demanding democratic elections from local to central government level.

The protesters said the village had not had a free election in more than 40 years, allowing party secretary Xue Chang to hold onto the position for four decades.

The villagers took matters into their own hands more than two months ago and elected Xue Jinbo as deputy head of a provisional village representative committee, but the authorities quickly branded the committee illegal.

'We want democracy. Democratic elections should be held in the village and in other areas,' Lin said at yesterday's rally before the protest broke up without incident.

Lin said he did not expect police would arrest him anytime soon, even though the authorities had accused him of engaging in illegal behaviour.

'I think the villagers will put their lives on the line to confront the local government if I am arrested,' he said.

Villagers said they were continuing with their normal lives in the village but were frustrated that police had blocked the main entrance to the community, making it difficult to get food and conduct regular business.

'My grandchildren dare not to go outside the village to see doctors even though they are sick. We fear that they will be arrested while they are out,' one woman said.

'Police will not enter the village now because reporters are here. I think they will come soon after the reporters go.'

The residents said police turned food trucks away at the village's main entrance but they were able to unload the food and sneak it in in small quantities through side roads.

'Police just send the trucks away without giving any explanation,' a resident said.

Some shops were closed because of the supply problems and residents had put out a collection box for donations to go to those in financial need.

School was also suspended a few days ago after teachers living in Donghai township were barred from entering the village.

'I don't think classes will resume until the dispute is settled,' a pupil said.