Wukan is quickly gaining the reputation as the village that fought back.
Residents have barricaded their fishing village of 20,000 people for a week in protest against land confiscations by Chinese government authorities. The protest is expected to be violent during the weekend, when a memorial service is scheduled for a protest leader who villagers say was beaten to death while in custody.
Xue Jinbo, 42, died Sunday after two days in custody. Chinese authorities say he suffered a heart attack, but family members say the body showed signs of beating and torture. Although the body has yet to be released, family members say they will nevertheless begin services for him this weekend.
“Even if we don’t have his body, we will have a ceremony to let his soul rest in peace,” said a 24-year-old villager, surnamed Gao, who is engaged to Xue’s daughter.
Like many in rural China during the last decade, Wukan’s residents have seen what had been collectively owned village land sold for real estate development, enriching local government but leaving many residents poor. Wukan’s villagers have refused to succumb, battling authorities in recent years with rocks and sharpened bamboo sticks and other homemade weapons.
Residents have demanded that village officials open their books to reveal what happened to the proceeds from millions of dollars in land sales. Thwarted in their efforts, villagers in late September destroyed a restaurant and pig farm that belonged to a Hong Kong developer and vandalized local government offices.
Authorities agreed to an audit of all land transactions. But the deal fell apart and protests began again a week ago.
Xue Jinbo, who was one of three villagers who had been designated to negotiate with the local government, was arrested last Friday. Two days later he died in a nearby hospital. His daughter, Xue Jianwan, told a Hong Kong news agency she believed her father had been beaten to death.
“There were injuries to his chest and bruises all over his body,” she said, according to iSun Affairs. “He seemed to have been kicked and stepped on.”
The persistent fighting in Wukan could eventually ensnare Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong province, an up-and-coming political figure who is a likely candidate for the national Politburo Standing Committee.
A brutal, well-publicized crackdown is not what the Chinese government wants, but capitulating to protesters’ demands could also embolden villagers elsewhere with the same grievances.
Land confiscations have been the leading trigger for protest in recent years as local governments try to fill their coffers with real estate deals. Local governments last year took in $470 billion from land deals, up from $70 million in 1989, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. Under the communist system, villagers don’t own land and have no say in negotiations over what happens to it.
In Wukan, about 90 miles east of Shenzhen, villagers used to make their living fishing and farming rice. The land that was sold to real estate developers was supposed to lead to businesses that would create jobs.
“There was a center for breeding sea horses, a few industries, but mostly it was just for luxury villas that didn’t create jobs,” Zhang Chenghao said in a September interview. “The people didn’t benefit.”
He said Thursday that he had fled the village for fear of arrest.