‘Occupy’ protests come to China, and the Party is shaken

Editor’s Note: A village in southern China has become the epicentre for one of the most severe challenges to the leadership of the Communist Party of China in recent years. The protests, which began as pushback against ‘land grab’ by local officials of the Communist Party, have escalated in recent days, with the villagers hounding out local officials, occupying the government offices and forming their own administration. This poses a direct challenge to the authority of the Communist Party, and from all accounts, the authorities, who had initially blockaded the village, may now be preparing for a crackdown.

By B Raman

The Chinese leadership has been unnerved by the persisting and spreading protest of the people of Wukan, a fishing village with a population of about 13,000 in Guangdong province in southern China. Significantly, the Chinese economic miracle started in Guangdong province in the 1990s,and it has always been projected as the “showcase” province of China.

The protest movement was initially directed against forcible land acquisitions at arbitrarily low prices by the local authorities. It has since turned into a protest against the alleged death of a protester in police custody and against the illegal detention of four other protesters by the police.

Wukan, China

The Chinese leadership has been unnerved by the persisting and spreading protest of the people of Wukan, a fishing village with a population of about 13,000 in southern China. AFP

Wukan has been the scene of sporadic protests against arbitrary land acquisitions for months. The current round of protests started in September when plans for the construction of a residential project were announced. This involved the acquisition of valuable farmland for the project.

The protest has now assumed an uncontrollable dimension for the past 10 days following the death of a protester who was arrested by the local police. The police claim that he died of a heart attack, but the villagers allege that he was beaten to death by the police.

Shops and schools have been closed in the village for the past one week and police reinforcements have been rushed from adjoining villages and towns. The police have reportedly blockaded the village to prevent the protesters from visiting other villages to gather support.

The protesters have driven out local officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and occupied the local offices of the party. On 18 December, they warned that if the body of the protester was not handed over to them and if the four protesters in police custody are not released by 21 December, they will march to the offices of the government located at nearby Lufeng city and occupy them too.

The protesters have accused the police of trying to starve the local villagers into submission by stopping the flow of essential commodities into the village from adjoining villages.

News and pictures of the protest movement have been spreading across China through microblogs despite the efforts of the Ministry of Public Security to block them. According to Radio Free Asia, funded by the US State Department, a video showing several thousand villagers congregating at the Mazu Temple in Wukan village, near the port city of Shanwei, was posted on popular microblogging sites Sina Weibo and Tencent, and was quickly removed by censors.

The video showed large numbers of villagers sitting on the ground in the temple courtyard in protest at the detention of their representatives by police. "Down with corrupt officials!" the crowd chanted. “Compensation for blood spilled!”

The government has imposed new restrictions regarding registration for microblogs making it obligatory for service providers to verify the identities of the microbloggers before allowing them to use assumed names and to share the real identities with the Ministry of Public Security when called upon to do so in the interest of internal security.

This has had no effect on microbloggers, who continue to disseminate news and pictures of the unrest in Wukan. The government is worried that the unrest is being orchestrated by unpatriotic elements to cause internal confusion and political instability in the months preceding important meetings of the Communist Party and the National People’s Congress (NPC) early next year to designate the new leadership of the party and the state to take over from the present leadership when it completes its tenure in 2012 and 2013.

The following tweet, which is believed to have originated in Honolulu, has been circulating on the internet: “This only the beginning. The beginning of an end of a regime. Stand strong people, united for your cause. Some people already gave their lives; don’t let them go to waste.”

The government’s concerns were enhanced on 18 December when a small protest in sympathy with the villagers of Wukan was held in Guangzhou, the capital of Guandgong province.

The Communist Party and the government are seriously concerned by the situation. On 13 December, they announced the cancellation of the visits of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Nepal and Myanmar scheduled for later in December. Even though the Chinese embassies in Nepal and Myanmar attributed the cancellation to Wen’s preoccupation with preparations for the Party and NPC meetings next year, many believe it reflects the worries of the leadership over dangers of internal political instability.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India; he is currently Director of the Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Republished with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.