Fishing — and normal life — on hold in Wukan, China

WUKAN, China — By a bit past 4 a.m., the wooden fishing boats are usually on their way out. In his shed on the docks, Chen Mingcai can hear the engines sputter to life before they slip away into the darkness.

Lately, though, it's been quiet. Locals say that after they fought off a police advance on Dec. 11 and closed off the town to village security forces and Chinese Communist Party officials, government boats chased the fisherman from open waters into a harbor of the South China Sea. While there's no blockade to be seen, the fear of the unknown is enough to keep most of the boats moored.

The government of the nearby city of Lufeng "is scared that we'll buy weapons and bring them in," said a 49-year-old fisherman surnamed Lin, who requested that his full name not be used for fear of reprisals.

Two other fishermen quickly offered a different theory: Officials don't want people fleeing to Hong Kong and Taiwan across the sea.

Like the rest of Wukan, no one at the docks is sure of what's happening these days. People are angry about allegations that the village government sold much of the surrounding land without telling anyone, much less handing out compensation.

"I think the most important thing is to bring justice to Wukan," said Chen Mingcai, 51, who manages a small fish farm made of floating gas cans, boards and nets.

It's unclear whether the standoff will end with crackdown or negotiation.

Perhaps owing to those anxieties, a notice appeared Monday morning outside a house where many journalists are staying that asked them not to use the words "uprising" or "revolt" to describe the situation.

All the people interviewed here since Thursday have said they're pinning their hopes on an intervention by the central government. While there's no end of venom toward the administration that was run out of town, villagers affirm at every turn that their faith in Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party remains strong.

To date, however, the central government hasn't shown up. So the people of Wukan have been left to negotiate with the sorts of local officials they condemn at near-daily rallies in the village square.

At a gathering Monday, members of a provisional commission in Wukan called on the crowd of more than a thousand to march to Lufeng's government building Wednesday. They intend to demand the return of the body of Xue Jinbo, an advocate who died in police custody Dec. 11.

The commission was formed to represent locals after clashes with police in September over a property dispute.

One member of the group, surnamed Shen, suggested unease about things going too far.

"We're afraid that if we go to Lufeng the police will shoot us, or detain people and beat them to death," said Shen, a short man in baggy black pants who also didn't want his first name used.

Organizers have painted a less dramatic picture: If the police don't allow the procession to pass, they'll just stage a sit-in.

Shen said that despite his misgivings he'd probably join the march.

"I used to go out to the sea and fish, and then come back at noon and tend my family's land," he said. "But now I can't fish and our land has been taken away."

What, he asked, is there left for him to do?


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