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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Village that stood up to corruption a sign of hope for others

Lin Zuluan succeeds Xue Jinbo, who died in December. Picture: Getty
Lin Zuluan succeeds Xue Jinbo, who died in December. Picture: Getty


AS CHINA gears up for a leadership transition later this year, a small fishing village that stood up to official corruption and rural land grabs has become a touchstone for other communities striving to fight back against grassroots abuses.
Since the uprising in December in Wukan, a coastal village of 15,000 in southern Guangdong province, which challenged and won key concessions from provincial officials, other rural communities have taken note.
About 1,000 residents of Wanggang, a gritty suburb of leather factories and shabby tenement blocks, recently massed outside the gates of the provincial capital Guangzhou, holding a rare large-scale protest against a major city government.
For some people, Wukan has become a new rallying cry for their own battle against public corruption.
“If China doesn’t change and help … vulnerable residents in villages, every village might develop into a Wukan,” said Mr Li, 33, a protester who took part in the rally against Wanggang’s Communist Party village chief, Li Zhihang. He is accused of plundering land, committing widespread fraud and using a gang of thugs from the country’s north to intimidate locals.
Guangdong province – China’s most populated and a major manufacturing hub – has seen its share of unrest, including riots in Zengcheng over oppressive behaviour against migrant workers. The province’s prominent party boss, Wang Yang, must avoid serious policy mistakes which would damage his prospects for promotion in a leadership transition late this year.
By invoking the name of Wukan, Wanggang villagers believe they won a swifter response from edgy officials.
Mr Li said: “They are forcing us to take this road.”
After the villagers threatened to turn Wanggang into a “second Wukan”, a Guangzhou vice-mayor, Xie Xiaodan, met them and promised an inquiry into alleged abuses.
But despite their bravado, Wanggang is no Wukan.
Wukan’s residents were in open revolt, expelling officials and police and barricading themselves in for ten days until provincial government intervention brought an end to the siege.
Wangang appears less united, its residents split among numerous clans. Most are city dwellers holding urban jobs, less desperate to reclaim farmland for subsistence than those in Wukan.
For Wukan, Mr Wang chose conciliation instead of force, sending a key deputy to intervene and offer concessions on seized land. In a remarkable twist, the rebel village leader, Lin Zuluan, 65, was later named party secretary of Wukan.
Despite the softer approach, some experts say Wukan will not change China’s iron-fisted approach to dissent.
Willy Lam, an academic and veteran China watcher in Hong Kong, said: “The fact that Wang Yang decided to use more conciliatory methods regarding Wukan doesn’t mean a change of policy on the part of Beijing, nor does it mean that leaders in other provinces will follow.
“The leaders of other provinces cannot afford to allow the Wukan case to become a sort of a model because this will damage the authority of the party.”
The legacy of Wukan still echoes in other villages. A man in Luogang village complained about officials bragging about new cars, as he dug taro roots and spring onions in a field.
“We want to be like Wukan, all the villagers here do,” said the elderly man, squelching barefoot through the mud. “It’s very encouraging, we hope everywhere can fight back and beat the corrupt officials.”