Officials in a Chinese village that has been the scene of months of unrest were taken hostage earlier this week in the latest escalation in a dispute over land rights.
The hostage taking – which ended with the officials being released – came after the arrest of one of the leaders of a series of protests in the village of Wukan. The villagers returned to the streets on Tuesday with at least 2,000 gathering to demand the release of Zhuang Liehong, who had organised petitions against an alleged land grab by local officials.
Wukan was the scene of violent confrontations between residents and local police in September, when a government office was damaged. Police responded with force, which locals said involved indiscriminate clubbing and beating of residents, including children.
Non-violent protests started again in late November when 4,000 villagers complained that a government investigation into the alleged land grab by a powerful developer in collusion with local party officials had not been carried out as promised. Online comment last month lauded the government for allowing the protests.
The latest Wukan protest came as Zhou Yongkang, China’s security chief, called on government and Communist party officials to deal with citizen complaints so as to “remove” potential conflicts that undermine social stability.
Mr Zhou warned officials at the weekend that the economic slowdown could lead to a rise in social unrest. There has already been a spate of protests across China this year.
Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said that the local government’s see-sawing response to the protests in Wukan were emblematic of the challenges faced by the provincial government of Guangdong – which includes Wukan – where the senior local party official, Wang Yang, has for the past months recommended a lighter hand.
“Local officials face very difficult choices. They might be forced to promise too much in negotiations with villagers but might not be able to deliver…on land deals where the land may already have been sold to the real estate company”, Mr Cheng said.
One 20-year-old villager on Tuesday told the Financial Times that the protest was a signal that locals were prepared to “fight to the death”.
On Monday, police set up road blocks on the road to Wukan, ostensibly for the purpose of cracking down on “gangs”, after residents took the village governor and a dozen officials hostage as part of a protest. The officials were later released.
“The person who was arrested didn’t commit any crime. He didn’t beat people and he didn’t sell drugs,” said a local businessman named Mr Sun. “The government here is terrible and have dark minds. If the villagers won in the end, the officials would lose their position so they try every way to make us give up.”
A local government spokesman said there was no clash on Monday but that villagers had detained officials for a few hours. “Villagers always go to the village committee to express their complaints,” Mr Huang said. “Things are developing. Details will be announced in official reports.”