Recent Death Sparks Protests in Guangdong In Ongoing Struggle for Property Rights

"Meishi Street" (dir. Ou Ning)

The plight of unexpected activists and dingzihu, those Chinese households who refuse to yield their homes to demolition and real estate overhauls, has been well-documented over the past several years. Though the stories of stalwarts striving to preserve their farms and homes at the mercy of relentless “development” policies have appeared in film such as Ou Ning‘s 2006 documentary Meishi Street, rarely has such a story received the widespread attention of the still-unfolding events in Wukan Village, Guangdong.

The New York Times‘s Andrew Jacobs reports:

A long-running dispute between farmers and local officials in southern China exploded into open rebellion this week after villagers chased away government leaders, set up roadblocks and began arming themselves with homemade weapons, residents said.

The conflict in Wukan, a coastal settlement near the country’s booming industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, escalated on Monday after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Communist Party had died in police custody. The authorities say a heart attack killed the 42-year-old man, but relatives say his body bore signs of torture.

According to a Reuters article that appeared in The Guardian, the death of the 42-year-old man, Xue Jinbo, who was chosen as part of a small group of villagers selected to negotiate with government officials after protests broke out in Wukan last September, has incited a new wave of fury and protest.

“We’re very pained and angry at his death,” said one villager who declined to be named. “He didn’t commit any crime. He was just a negotiator speaking with the government, trying to get our land back. He was defending farmers’ rights.”

…Pictures on Wukan microblogging sites on Sunday showed large numbers of riot police in a standoff with thousands of residents, some armed with sticks and spades, who were demanding the return of farmland to restore their livelihoods.

Witnesses said hundreds of riot police remained at the edge of the village, preventing almost all people and vehicles from entering or leaving. Some villagers said food supplies to the area had also been cut. Authorities have also apparently been making aggressive sweeps of Wukan at night over the past week. Witnesses said police sirens roused the entire village, and that citizens were dragged from their beds and interrogated.

The sense of injustice surrounding Xue Jinbo’s alleged torture–as well as other recent events fueling outrage and outcry online–may be gesturing to a new climate for social movement in China.

Again, the Times reports:

Spasms of social unrest in China have become increasingly common, a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive justice system.

But the clashes in Wukan, which first erupted in September, appear to be unusual for their longevity – and for the brazenness of the participants.

Meishi Street, which tells the story of a group of neighbors struggling to preserve their Beijing homes as the city is re-zoned and reconfigured in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, provides a primer–or even a counter-point to the events now unfolding. Often told from the narrative perspective of the Meishi Street residents, the film exhibits the dizzying bureaucracy and intense anguish that so-called development can generate—an anguish that is now creating a new sense of inequity and protest culture in Wukan.

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