China's rebellious villagers halt protest after apparent intervention

WUKAN, China — A tense standoff between rebellious villagers and local officials in this fishing town on China's eastern coast appeared to come to an end on Wednesday, though the tentative agreement did not untangle allegations of official corruption and land grabs.

Stretching more than a week, the takeover of Wukan from police and officials was arguably the most dramatic example of social unrest in a year marked by bursts of tumult around the country.

Like similar incidents, the end of the episode here seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. Taken as a whole, such cases have pointed to a complicated matter for Beijing — the nation's development efforts are at times implemented by crooked officials.

There's ample argument that as the nation continues its economic ascent, the widespread practice of individual farmers working tiny plots of land, as was the case in Wukan, will have to be transformed. That idea folds neatly into central leadership's desires to shift from cheap, labor-intensive industry to an economy that creates wealth from domestic consumption, high-tech innovation and an expanding service sector.

But when villages like Wukan explode with anger, it is almost inevitably accompanied by accusations that those in charge of the transition are guilty of thefts, large and small.

In a meeting earlier this week, the Chinese Communist Party secretary of the city with oversight of Wukan bemoaned the difficulty of dealing with common people during an address to officials in Shanwei.

Dressed in a black Ralph Lauren windbreaker, the pudgy man with bags under his eyes, Zheng Yanxiong, noted they are becoming "harder to control."

Across Wukan, locals said that in the past two decades most of the village's farmland was whittled away by greedy officials without notice or payment. By the end of that process, capped by construction workers breaking ground on a controversial project in September, many here said they were left with literally nothing to do for a living. Riots followed.

The Communist Party secretary of Wukan, Xue Chang, ruled the village for decades in a style that residents described as dictatorial. Xue and another senior official in the village have reportedly been taken in for questioning. Locals, though, angrily pointed out that they had begged authorities for years to intervene and were ignored until staging a revolt.

The problem appeared so intractable that Wukan protest leaders dropped the return of their land from a list of demands presented to Guangdong's deputy party secretary, Zhu Mingguo, on Wednesday morning. If no agreement had been reached in the meeting, organizers planned a march of thousands on a government building in the neighboring town of Lufeng — leaving open the possibility of a chaotic confrontation with police.

The prospect of violence made some villagers nervous and seemed to have the same effect on officials in the nation's most populous province and the center of its export industry.

The Communist Party secretary of Guangdong province, Wang Yang, is frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for the nation's ruling politburo standing committee next year.

Wang's lieutenant agreed to deliver the body of a Wukan advocate who died in police custody, release three men currently being detained and recognize the legitimacy of a temporary council formed by villagers, said de facto village leader Lin Zuluan.

Speaking with a group of reporters crammed into his living room, Lin said he was pleased with the outcome.

A lack of cooperation wouldn't have helped either Wukan or the government, said the 65-year-old retired businessman. The full range of details about land will be discussed later, Lin said.

He waved off the fact that he was previously pointed out by officials as a principle troublemaker subject to prosecution.

As to whether the calm would last, Lin sounded less confident, saying there could always be more trouble in the future.

The day before, thousands of people blocked a highway in a separate protest in Guangdong.

About 70 miles up the coast in the town of Haimen, the crowd was concerned about pollution to fishing waters from a proposed coal-fired power plant. There were unconfirmed but widely spread accounts that police dispersed the gathering with brutal beatings.

In Wukan on Wednesday, a long line gathered to welcome the provincial delegation. As sport utility vehicles and cars passed by the spot that only a day before was blocked with felled trees, several of the license plates belonged to the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force.

Watching the vehicles, a man surnamed Chen said he was getting anxious.

"The police do not give me a sense of security," said Chen, a 30-year-old driver who asked that his first name not be used.

Standing nearby, a 43-year-old farmer surnamed Shi had similar feelings.

"I'm worried that things will go back to the way they were before," he said.


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