Monday, January 09, 2012

Anxiety lingers despite outward calm in Wukan

WUKAN (Guangdong): Thick bamboo poles straining against their shoulders, 12 men hoisted a pale, rough-hewn wooden coffin as villagers watched the funeral procession snake through the village with heavy hearts.

It was the second death in recent weeks in the protest-hit fishing village of Wukan.

Even as the family of village leader Xue Jinbo, who died in police custody on Dec 11, is locked in long, angry negotiations to get his body back, relatives of Mr Lin Zheng laid him to rest last Wednesday.

Tragedy sometimes comes with victory, as Wukan villagers know well.

They triumphed temporarily after the Guangdong provincial government promised late last month to release four villagers arrested earlier, to hold new elections to replace corrupt village officials, and to investigate the allegedly illegal land grabs that had sparked months of marches and protests.

But a gnawing anxiety lingered as villagers counted another death.

Mr Lin, 69, killed himself on Dec 28.

A few villagers declined to talk about whether his suicide was a result of the recent tension.

But his wife, Madam Chen Bizhen, 64, told The Straits Times he had become very stressed and anxious after getting repeated phone calls from the local authorities, telling him to turn himself in for taking part in protests which involved most of the village's 6,000 residents.

'He became very scared when the phone calls kept coming. And there was talk about the authorities coming into the village to arrest more people. He just became very scared,' she said, on the last night of the wake.

On Dec 28, he had left their home in the morning. When she herself returned home later, she found him lying face-down on the floor. He was dead.

'He got a haircut before drinking the pesticide he bought,' she said.

He had not even taken part in the marches or protests, she added, though she herself had joined the villager-run patrol squads to keep a lookout for police.

But every household in the village had been getting phone calls from the authorities, said Mr Lin's nephew Li Junzhou, 28.

'Sometimes they call six or seven times a day, asking us if we had been involved in the protests and telling us to surrender if we had. I tell them if they hadn't been corrupt in the first place, we wouldn't have needed to protest. Others shout some swear words at them and hang up.

'But my uncle was just a very honest man. He didn't know what to do when they kept pressing him.'

Madam Chen said her husband did not have any mental problems. The couple lived in the village while their five children are migrant workers elsewhere.

She said: 'He phoned the children to tell them not to come home for a while because it was chaotic and dangerous here.'

The protests in Wukan, on China's south-east coast, were among tens of thousands of 'mass incidents' in China last year. But the village hit international headlines last month after villagers held a series of well-organised marches, chased out Communist Party officials, fought back the police, and barricaded roads leading into their village.

Their grievances initially centred on land sales which stretch back some 20 years and which they say are illegal. That led them to petition the government more than 10 times in recent years, to no avail.

Then, the death of Mr Xue - one of the 13 representatives the villagers had elected on their own - while he was in police custody galvanised the village. It held 10 days of mass protests until the government announced its conciliatory moves, with Guangdong party chief Wang Yang's endorsement.

The official Xinhua news agency, which had not reported the protests previously, then said Wukan residents had 'legitimate complaints against officials over wrongdoing concerning land use and financial management', citing a provincial investigation team.

Last week, Mr Wang - a rising star who is said to be slated for higher political office - said Guangdong would use the 'Wukan approach' as a template to reform the governance of villages and townships at the grassroots level, a statement observers read as a positive sign.

But on the ground in the village, matters appear far from settled.

'We are still anxious, there is still a lot to work out, and some of it very difficult,' said villager representative Lin Zuluan, 65.

Discussions over the village's land problems have been mired in basics like the total land area at stake and boundaries. Villagers await promised elections to put in place new leaders.

Some of the young men who led the protests have not dared to leave the village for three months now for fear of arrest by local police.

Most pressing of all, Mr Xue's body still has not been released by the authorities, who said he had died of a heart attack while in police custody.

His family members say he was covered with bruises when they were shown his body by the police, who prevented them from taking pictures or holding on to their mobile phones.

His family and village representatives have been asking for his body to be released back to them. Negotiations have proven intractable so far.

Sources close to the negotiations said the authorities had proposed sending the body straight to a cemetery, without releasing it to the family.

As Chinese New Year draws closer, the authorities' calculation might be that the Xue family would get anxious about burying their dead before then, and cave in to their suggestion.

But a family member told The Straits Times: 'What is most important is justice.'