WUKAN, China — Protesting villagers in southern China said Sunday they will march on government offices this week unless the body of a local leader is released and four villagers in police custody are freed.
The 13,000 residents of Wukan, in the wealthy province of Guangdong, are in open revolt against officialdom and have driven out local Communist Party leaders who they say have been stealing their land for years.
The villagers appear to be winning support from the public, with the first confirmed protest backing them held in the provincial capital Guangzhou on Sunday. The three demonstrators there were detained by police.
While the Guangzhou protest was relatively small, it is a sign that government efforts to block news of the unrest in Wukan have failed and the villagers are attracting public support.
Many local businesses have been closed for the past week while schools have been shuttered as riot police blockade the village, which has for months been the scene of occasionally violent protests over land seizures.
Authorities have vowed to crack down on the instigators of the latest unrest, which was triggered by the arrest nine days ago of five villagers, one of whom died last Sunday in police custody.
Authorities say the 42-year-old man suffered a heart attack, while relatives who saw the body said they believed he had been beaten to death.
Villagers told AFP on Sunday they will march to government offices in Lufeng city on Wednesday unless the body of Xue Jinbo is returned and the other four villagers still in police custody are released.
“If they do not return our people then for sure we will march to Lufeng,” said a villager surnamed Zhang, 44, who told AFP his family’s plot of farmland was taken from him in 1995. It would be the third such march since September.
Community leaders have started to collect donations of food and money for the “several hundred villagers” struggling to feed themselves due to the cordons of police and riot squads blocking the main roads in and out of Wukan.
“Yesterday we raised about 10,000 yuan ($1,575) in donations for the poorer people,” said a villager surnamed Chen, outside a building where a dozen 20-kilogramme (44-pound) sacks of rice were stacked.
Villagers complain that local leaders have been stealing their land for decades. Anger boiled over in September when a lucrative housing project involving yet more valuable farmland was announced.
The villagers marched to a nearby police post and violent clashes ensued. Since then, Wukan has driven out local Communist leaders who residents say have ruled the village as despots.
Despite the police blockade, some businesses have remained open but owners complain they are running low on supplies.
“Of course we are having difficulties. Due to the police blockade we cannot get in any new stock,” a man surnamed Wu told AFP in his general store where shelves normally packed with alcohol, oil and other cooking ingredients were half empty.
But some food supplies from neighbouring villages have reached Wukan. Another man surnamed Wu said he had been carrying cabbages, lettuce and broccoli on his back into Wukan via back roads to avoid the police checkpoints.
“I have been coming here every day to sell vegetables. They are short on supplies and they have no farmland of their own,” Wu said.
Parents also expressed concern about their children’s education with village schools now shut for more than a week.
“It is too difficult to carry on normal life when the government is treating us this way,” said a woman surnamed Li, who has two children.
“Of course, I want my children to go to school, but right now is not the right time. We have to wait and see how this will be handled.”
The three protesters detained in Guangzhou told AFP it was the second time in a week they had demonstrated in support of the Wukan villagers after reading about their plight on the Internet.
They hoped to “encourage people to go out onto the street”.