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.