Fishing village becomes focus of China unrest


THOUSANDS GATHERED in the fishing village of Wukan in wealthy Guangdong province yesterday to mourn the death of Xue Jinbo, a local man who died in police custody while trying to plead the villagers’ case.

Police say Mr Xue died on Sunday of a “sudden illness”, after he “confessed” to destroying public property, but his family and supporters say he was tortured and his body was covered in bruises. He was one of five land rights activists accused of leading a protest on September 21st, when hundreds of residents smashed buildings, overturned vehicles and clashed with police.

His death intensified the stand-off between villagers and authorities, prompting armed police to block roads leading to Wukan, a village of 20,000 people.

The protest is the latest challenge to the authority of the Communist Party in China, part of a broader picture of unrest that blots the Chinese landscape despite decades of economic growth. While most Chinese people are largely indifferent to calls for more democracy, what does cause anger is corruption.

Wukan is not a dirt-poor village in the heartland, but a prosperous village at the heart of the Pearl Delta, the engine of the country’s economic boom.

Last year there were 280,000 so-called “mass incidents”, including petitions, demonstrations and strikes, both peaceful and violent in China. The Wukan riots are part of a pattern of protest that has existed in China for many years. The reaction across the country, largely evident through microblogs such as Sina Weibo, similar to the banned Facebook, has been outrage.

“China is becoming more and more unstable. We need to work hard to strengthen our own culture and ability to achieve things,” wrote one microblogger.

In a sign of how desperate some local governments are to keep a lid on dissent, Batman actor Christian Bale was tackled by hired thugs as he tried to visit one of China’s most famous dissidents, the blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng, who has been under house arrest since his release from prison last year.

Alongside the artist Ai Weiwei, Chen is probably China’s best-known activist. Blinded by a fever in infancy and self-taught as a lawyer, Chen was jailed for drawing attention to forced sterilisations and abortions in his locality because of the One Child Policy.

Another prominent dissident, the Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing for 20 months after he disappeared with security officials, was reportedly sent to jail for violating the terms of his parole. Rights group Amnesty International described his treatment as “a travesty of justice”.

The Beijing city government has unveiled rules that require individual users of Weibo, and indeed corporate users, must register with their real names. They have three months to do so. This is a major step, because microblogs such as Weibo allow users to issue short messages containing whatever they like, and it has proven a powerful platform for dissent.