LUFENG, China (Reuters) – It was an unusual scene for a Chinese riot — there was not a single policeman in sight.
In the southern village of Wukan, debris and smashed furniture littered the courtyard of a ransacked government office several days after villagers clashed with officials over illegal land requisition.
Gangs of laughing children bounced up and down on a torn mattress in the courtyard as other villagers went around smashing out the last shards of glass from shattered windows with sticks, while others scoured the gutted rooms for useable items.
“Come up here,” said one child running through the deserted Wukan local Communist Party office and pointing at hundreds of condom packets strewn on the ground amid piles of debris, papers and broken appliances. “Look how corrupt they were.”
The riots earlier this month in Wukan, a suburb of Lufeng city on the eastern flank of economic powerhouse Guangdong province, have again highlighted the spectre of rural unrest in China, alarming for its Communist Party rulers.
While the Wukan clashes saw an initial crackdown by authorities on villagers who had gathered to protest dodgy deals involving hundreds of hectares of farmland, the aftermath was highly out of character in a country where the normal response to unrest is to “strike hard” with an iron fist.
Instead, authorities seemed to melt from sight for several days, a stark contrast to other “mass incidents” in Guangdong and elsewhere in China in recent years where the police presence has been typically overwhelming.
It was unclear if the softer line spells a trend for handling future unrest, or involved direct intervention by the province’s reform-minded party chief Wang Yang. But the tactics did succeed in heading off an incident that could have been a powder keg, and a political headache for Wang.
“Sometimes the lack of reaction is a paralysis and sometimes it’s an attempt to defuse the situation,” said Nicolas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I think the police in China want to be as professional as possible, to have no ideological blinders in a sense, and if the best way is to give way and let people rampage for two days, they will do it.”
Six years ago, Guangdong was roiled by severe clashes in Dongzhou Township and Taishi village, also over corrupt land deals, that saw a brutal security crackdown.
In Dongzhou, authorities shot dead three people “in alarm” when villagers stormed a wind power plant while in Taishi, hired thugs and riot police terrorised villagers, roughed up journalists and sealed off the area.
The stakes are high for Wang, in charge of the affluent province a short drive from the financial hub of Hong Kong.