It was far from the first time that local government officials in China took over poor people’s land and deprived them of their livelihoods. It was far from the first time that people who protested were beaten up and abused.
So local officials in Wukan Village, Guangdong province, thought they’d get away with it in September 2011. But they were wrong. The people fought back and they have won.
Despite police, the threat of a crackdown and the word “Wukan” being censored from the web, most of this fishing community’s 20,000 people rose up.
China’s local government officials cash in on booming property markets by selling land to developers without proper compensation to the people who use it.
They have done so since the “gaige kaifang” period of economic liberalisation in the late 1970s.
These land grabs have been a major factor in impoverishing villages and motivating migration away from rural areas.
In Wukan, development projects have replaced farmland with luxurious holiday hotels and villas since the 1990s—and local officials have profited.
Villagers have been petitioning central government since 2006 against local officials pocketing over 700 million yuan (£72 million) compensation money intended for farmers.
Land worth one billion yuan (£100 million) was sold off to a Guangdong-based property development company owned by one of China’s richest men last September.
Not a penny of compensation was offered to the farmers—so they resisted. Thousands protested demanding the return of their land.
The authorities treated them like criminals. The local administration’s propaganda department in city of Lufeng called them “lawbreakers” and “troublemakers”.
In early December, police arrested five of the representatives villagers had elected to negotiate with the authorities.
One of them, Xue Jinbo, died in custody. Police claimed he had suffered a heart attack. But when his family were shown his body it was covered in bruises and injuries.
While mourning Xue’s death, more than 10,000 villagers stepped up their protest. They gathered outside the Village Committee building, holding placards and shouting, “Down with corrupt officials! Protect our home land!”
They demanded that Xue’s body be returned and other detained representatives be released.
Local officials fled, including the Communist Party’s general secretary. Protesters erected barricades to stop armed police from entering the village, and young men patrolled the streets.
The police blocked roads into Wukan to starve the protesters out.
But neighbouring villagers managed to smuggle in food.
Meanwhile in the provincial capital, Guangzhou, some 20 microbloggers who use Weibo—the Chinese equivalent of Twitter—came onto the streets in support of Wukan. Most have been arrested.
But to the government’s horror, villagers began to form their own administration in the style of a commune.
They elected a village committee to replace the corrupt officials.
The new committee members are reported to have donated money to support the poorest in the village so that they can survive the armed blockade. Villagers also set up their own press office to deal with national and international media.
Mass rallies were held each day where villagers discussed the need for real democracy in China.
The villagers directed their criticism at the local government. So the higher level of the government was able to offer measures of reconciliation instead of a crackdown.
The provincial government has now agreed to buy back part of the land it had seized and return it to Wukan villagers. Three detained villagers have been released. Villagers are now waiting for an investigation into Xue Jinbo’s death.
The Wukan uprising will serve as an inspiration for people all over China.
The government continues to crack down on Weibo users, and imprison individual online writers and activists.
In December, Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years and Chen Xi ten years in prison for “inciting subversion” in their online essays.
But it is much harder for the authorities to use force against large numbers of a united rural population who are increasingly aware of their rights.
As one Wukan villager said to the outside world, “If the government doesn’t keep its promises, we will be protesting again.”