Between jubilation and foreboding in Wukan, China

WUKAN, China — Perched close to the glistening waters of an inlet of the South China Sea, with a large tile fountain cascading from its doorstep, the Haiyun Holiday Hotel cuts a grand figure on the Wukan coastline.

Around the corner, rows of brand new buildings sit on either side of a boulevard, ready for retail shops to move in.

It could be a postcard for Chinese rural development if not for one detail: The angry villagers manning the nearby barricade.

As Wukan enters a second week of full-blown revolt — an extraordinarily rare event in this authoritarian state — the village's story has laid bare China's domestic challenges.

Even while the nation's meteoric economic growth of the past three decades fueled both excitement and trepidation around the world, and lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese from extreme poverty, fault lines of injustices in the nation's development have lurked just below.

Lately, they've been cracking through the the surface.

Protests in China so far have remained small prairie fires quickly snuffed out by officials, not spreading from one village or city to the next. Most observers expect the same to happen here. And those involved in such cases frequently say, as is the case in Wukan, that they place blame squarely on local officials and not the central government or the Chinese Communist Party.

However, the causes and details across the country are so similar that they could almost be plotted in a formula: official corruption, plus disparities in income and privilege, plus lack of legal protection for common citizens. That equals unrest. Repeat.

China's president and chair of the Communist Party, Hu Jintao, acknowledged a root of the situation in a speech this July, saying, "If not effectively curbed, corruption will cost the party the trust and support of the people."

Those issues are so deeply ingrained in the reality of Communist Party rule in the provinces — officials and those connected to them enjoying almost unbridled power and perks — that it isn't clear how Beijing will or could address the situation in a systemic fashion.

Underscoring the problem was a report that surfaced this year from the People's Bank of China — and cited in English-language Chinese media — that found that government employees who've fled the country since the mid-1990s made off with approximately $123 billion.

Beijing no longer releases its annual count of "mass incidents," a metric of uncertain definition thought to include everything from street-level disagreements to citywide riots.

A story carried last year by Oriental Outlook, a publication overseen by the official Xinhua newswire, quoted the director of the research office of the state-run China Academy of Governance as saying that mass incidents doubled from 2006 to 2010. State media has reported the number in 2006 as some 90,000.

Whatever the real tally, such incidents have risen sharply, and Wukan is turning into a profound example.

Standing in front of the Haiyun Holiday Hotel, which like many of the nicer homes in town is now abandoned, Zhang Xiangqing said that everyone in town knows it was built after a land grab.

"I feel uncomfortable looking at this building," said the 46-year-old fish merchant in gray pants and jacket. "This land used to be our land, and it was taken from us by the village officials... There was no compensation to the common people for this land, not even a single penny."

A friend, 46-year-old farmer Liu Yongzhen, chimed in: "If there had been compensation, we wouldn't be where we are today."

The Wukan government was not available for interview. All of its top members reportedly left in the months following a September protest about another real estate deal. After being told by village leaders that a proposed sale of a wide swath of property near the main road leading into Wukan had fallen through, locals on Sept. 21 spotted construction workers at the site. They first protested at the government building of the nearest city, Lufeng, and later that afternoon stormed the site.

The next day, hundreds of police pushed through Wukan, savagely beating some villagers, according to video footage. The violence sparked a riot against the police, who were pushed back to a station where a mob destroyed patrol cars.

In the aftermath, there seemed to be an understanding brokered between area officials and a committee of 13 people selected from the village. That came undone when on Dec. 9, a committee member named Xue Jinbo was taken away by plainclothes security officers. State media reported that he died of a heart attack while in custody on Dec. 11.

That same day, locals say, an attempt by police in riot gear to storm Wukan failed and authorities at that point sealed off the village.

A week later, Wukan is an uncertain place, caught somewhere between the jubilation of a liberation and the foreboding of a crackdown.

One of two key leaders of the uprising, a 44-year-old businessman named Yang Semao, struck conflicting notes in an interview.

"My feelings are very complicated," Yang said, looking out at a crowd of thousands at a rally on Saturday. "We're seeing the enthusiasm of the villagers but we aren't receiving any help from the government. All I can say is that we will try to fight."

The throbbing mass of people in front of him repeated slogans in unison that alternately swore support for the Communist Party and shouted for the punishment of corrupt officials.

Where was it all leading?

"The case of Wukan will become a model in the future if a similar situation arises in other village," said Yang, who often spoke while staring straight ahead, his hands clasped together.

Was he sure?

"If the central government doesn't support us, we will lose the capacity to push on," he said, his voice getting less certain.

He added: "There would be nowhere for us to go."

In the center of the village on Sunday, a committee handed out rice to those in danger of running out of food. While the main routes into Wukan are blocked, people from surrounding villages have used dirt paths and small roads to bring food in bags slung over motorcycles and motorized carts.

Standing in the street, a woman in a purple coat, megaphone in hand, reminded passersby that people with enough food for three days weren't eligible for the handouts.

A couple of men paused on the road, as if considering whether they qualified.

The megaphone sparked back on: "This is only for people who have just one day's supply."

The men kept walking.


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