Screen grab of a mass protest in Wukan. Video posted on YouTube by TomLasseter.
After months of unrest over a heated land dispute, it looks as though calm may finally have returned to Wukan, a small fishing town in China’s wealthy south-eastern province of Guangdong. Wukan’s residents have reached a deal with local authorities, bringing an end to a high-profile standoff that lasted nearly two weeks. Despite the international attention the conflict garnered, our Observer on the ground says the issue remains a local one.
The deal was struck on Wednesday, December 21, after a morning of intense talks. Responding to demands made by Wukan’s residents, officials agreed to halt a deal selling land confiscated from locals and promised to release a number of detained villagers. The negotiations came after anger over the land seizures boiled over into a full-fledged uprising following the death of Xue Jinbo, a locally-appointed representative, while in police custody.
As a part of Wednesday’s deal, local authorities said they would open an investigation into the causes of Xue’s death and announced that two officials linked to the land dispute had been relieved of their duties.
Protest in Wukan. Photo courtesy of Weibo.
While public outrage over social injustices such as land grabs are not a rare occurrence in China, the duration and scale of Wukan’s protests caught the world’s attention. Solidarity protests sprung up in major cities like Hong Kong and the lengthy standoff was carefully followed and documented on social networking websites.
A Hong Kong demonstration in solidarity with Wukan's villagers. Photo courtesy Weibo.
“The villagers in Wukan would be happy just to have new local leaders – they’re not asking for a new political model”
M. Deng, 40, lives in Beijing. Upon learning that Wukan was under siege he immediately decided to see what was happening with his own eyes. He left the town on Wednesday, December 21, after Wukan’s residents managed to strike a deal with local authorities.
I arrived in Wukan on December 18. The villagers helped me cross the police barricades. They escorted me on motorcycles and one of them even let me sleep at his home. Their hospitality was very much appreciated.
The villagers explained to me that several years ago, many of the young people in Wukan left the town in search of work. They decided to migrate to some of the bigger cities in the region where they could earn more money. When the economic crisis hit, several of them lost their jobs. They decided to go back home to try to live off their land. However, when they got to Wukan they realised the government had seized everything in a land grab, and sold it all off.
“If Wukan’s residents have persevered, it’s because the village is made up of 47 families, who are very supportive of one another”
While I was in Wukan, I participated in a number of protests. Their demands were fairly basic – they wanted their land back, and they were also asking that the authorities release their local representatives, in addition to demanding the resignation of all corrupt officials.
Usually, things go fairly smoothly in Wukan. As is often the case in rural areas, the town is for the most part run by the people who live there. As long as the authorities don’t interfere with local interests, the villagers have no reason to rise up.
The unrest in Wukan is derived from the fact that the local authorities decided to intervene with how local land was managed. If Wukan’s residents have persevered, it’s because the village is made up of 47 families, who are very supportive of one another. When they band together around a cause, it carries some weight.
“Uprisings like the one we’ve seen in Wukan remain very local”
Both Chinese and Western media covered the unrest in Wukan because they thought it signified the beginning of a fight for democracy. I don’t think this was the case. I think the villagers in Wukan would be happy just to have new local leaders – they’re not asking for a new political model. [At the peak of Wukan’s protests, the villagers elected a spokesperson to communicate their interests while negotiating with local representatives of the Communist party].
Besides, there are scores of conflicts of this nature in China. As quality of life improves across the globe, people want more and more. Today, everyone has enough to eat, so they’re asking for new things, like an end to corruption or greater freedom of expression, but they’re not asking to bring the system down.
What’s more, none of these conflicts are linked – uprisings like the one we’ve seen in Wukan remain very local. The exchange of information between villages is strictly controlled – people know very little about what’s happening in neighbouring towns. There are very few in the countryside who realise the amount of buzz Wukan’s uprising has generated abroad”.
Children hold up protest signs at a demonstration in Wukan. Photo courtesy of Weibo.