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Chinese Property Dispute Becomes A Bitter Showdown

Dec 16, 2011
Originally published on December 17, 2011 12:10 am

What began as a property dispute in the southern Chinese village of Wukan has escalated into an open revolt for the past six days. It's one of the most serious episodes of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in recent years. The protests were suspended for a while Friday so villagers could mourn the man whose death led villagers to chase police and government officials out of town. The police have sealed off the area, but NPR's Louisa Lim managed to get into Wukan.

Buddhist music plays through a tinny loudspeaker beside a small photo of 42-year-old Xue Jinbo beaming happily, a wide straw hat on his head. The picture is on a small makeshift altar in front of his house, where his family sits, looking stunned and wearing traditional hessian mourning robes.

Xue died in police custody. Many people here believe his death stems from the role he played as a negotiator in a land dispute with the local government.

"The government asked him to negotiate, so I supported my father. And the government paid him to do it," said Xue's 20-year-old son, Xue Jiandi.

Here, like in so many other places in China, villagers had accused local officials of stealing their land without providing adequate compensation.

"At the time, we thought that my father was doing this legally, and he was defending people's rights," said Xue Jiandi. "We didn't think there was any danger, and we could never have imagined it would have had this result."

A Simmering Dispute

The village's troubles have been brewing for a while. In September, the anger boiled over into three days of rioting. Last week, Xue was detained with four others on suspicion of damaging public property and disrupting public order. His family said he had gone for lunch with friends to a roadside restaurant.

His nephew, Xue Ruiqiang, said two cars full of plainclothes police, with no identity cards, pulled up.

"The guys didn't use handcuffs, they used ropes. And they took them away," he said.

That was the last time the villagers saw Xue Jinbo alive. His family was summoned two days later. They were told he had died of a heart attack.

But that's not what it looked like to Xue Ruiqiang, who saw his uncle's body in the morgue.

"I opened my uncle's clothes to see if there were injuries, and his whole body was covered with injuries," he said. "His hands were swollen and his head. There was blood around his nostrils. His feet and his knees were purple. His back was also bruised. We relatives who saw this, we absolutely believe the local police beat him."

A Funeral Without A Body

At Friday's funeral ceremony, the mourners burned paper money, paper figurines and even a paper white Mercedes for Xue Jinbo to use in the afterlife. But this funeral ceremony remained incomplete, because Xue's body had not been returned to the family.

"As his son, it's my first, and at the moment, my only demand that my father's body is returned, so that he can rest in peace," said Xue Jiandi.

But other villagers have other demands, too. They chanted, "Down with corrupt officials! Down with corruption!"

So far the local government has promised to investigate the land disputes. But the local authorities have also tried to split the villagers, winning over about 10 percent with promises of food, which is in short supply here.

There's also the implicit threat of violence: More than 15 paramilitary vehicles and army trucks were just outside the village. And there's the explicit threat to punish those inciting unrest. Yang Semao — one of those wanted as an organizer — was unperturbed.

"We'll keep resisting until our lawful demands are met," Yang said. "At first we wanted our land to be returned. But now we think it would be better if we were given compensation as well."

But Friday's memorial was mostly about the man who had died. His family hit sticks against the ground to summon his spirit back to the village. The mood was sad rather than defiant, and many fear this village will end up paying for its fighting spirit.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The village of Wukan in southern China has been in open revolt for six days. It's one of the most serious incidents of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in years. The protests stem from land seizures by the government. Today, demonstrations were suspended for a while as villagers mourned the death of one of their own in police custody. The police have sealed off Wukan, but NPR's Louisa Lim managed to get in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Buddhist music plays through a tinny loudspeaker beside a small photo of 42-year-old Xue Jinbo beaming happily. These are on a small makeshift altar in front of his house, where his family sits, stunned, wearing traditional Hessian mourning robes. Many people here believe Xue Jinbo's death stems back to the role he played as a negotiator in a land dispute with the government.

XUE JIANDI: (Through Translator) The government asked him to negotiate, so I supported my father. And the government paid him to do it.

LIM: That's his son, 20-year-old Xue Jiandi. Here, like in so many other places in China, villagers had accused local officials of stealing their land without giving adequate compensation.

JIANDI: (Through Translator) At the time, we thought that my father was doing this legally, and he was defending people's rights. We didn't think there was any danger. And we could never have imagined it would have had this result.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: A week ago, no one could have imagined they'd be watching a funeral procession. But the village's troubles have been brewing for a while. In September, the anger boiled over into three days of rioting. Last week, Xue was detained with four others on suspicion of damaging public property and disrupting public order. He'd gone for lunch with some friends to a roadside restaurant.

His nephew, Xue Ruiqiang, describes what happened next.

XUE RUIQIANG: (Through Translator) It seems two cars pulled up. They were full of plainclothes police, no identity cards. These guys didn't use handcuffs. They used ropes. And then they took them away.

LIM: That was the last time the villagers saw Xue Jinbo alive. His family was summoned two days later. They were told he had died of a heart attack. His nephew, Xue Ruiqiang, was at the morgue and describes what he saw.

RUIQIANG: (Through Translator) I opened my uncle's clothes to see if there were injuries, and his whole body was covered with injuries. His hands were swollen and his head. There was blood around his nostrils. His feet and his knees were purple. His back was also bruised. We relatives who saw this, we absolutely believe the local police had beaten him.

LIM: So this is part of the funeral ceremony, and they're burning paper money. They're also burning paper figurines. And there's even a paper Mercedes, which they're burning for Xue Jinbo to use in the afterlife. But this funeral ceremony, of course, is not complete because the family do not have the body, and that's one of their demands.

JIANDI: (Through Translator) As his son, it's my first and, at the moment, my only demand that my father's body is returned so that he can rest in peace. That's my only demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

LIM: But the other villagers have other demands too. Here, they chant: Down with corrupt officials, down with corruption.

So far, the local government has promised to investigate the land grabs. But it's also tried to split the villagers, winning over about 10 percent with promises of food, which is already in short supply here. There's also the implicit threat of violence. I saw more than 15 paramilitary vehicles and army trucks just outside the village. And there's the explicit threat to punish those inciting unrest.

Yang Semao, one of those wanted as an organizer, is unperturbed.

YANG SEMAO: (Through Translator) We'll keep resisting until our lawful demands are met. At first, we wanted our land to be returned. But now, we think it would be better if we were given compensation as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMAN SINGING)

LIM: But tonight's memorial was about the man who has become a martyr. His family hit sticks against the ground to summon his spirit back to the village. The mood tonight was sad rather than defiant, and many fear this village will end up paying for its fighting spirit.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Wukan, Guangdong, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.