Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Residents of a blockaded southern Chinese village canceled a protest march after winning concessions from the highest-ranking official yet to intervene in a two-week standoff over land and the death of a local man.
Zhu Mingguo, deputy secretary-general of the Communist Party’s Guangdong province committee, called the protesters’ demands in Wukan “reasonable” and agreed to release villagers held in police custody, Xinhua News Agency reported. He acknowledged party committees and government organizations in Wukan made “some mistakes,” which will be fixed. Wukan is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of Hong Kong in Guangdong.
The decision to meet the villagers’ demands is part of a wider government strategy aimed at containing such protests before they spread, said Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at the City University of Hong Kong. The standoff and other protests have sparked concerns that unrest stemming from China’s growth could undermine the Communist Party’s rule.
“I think the central authorities are sensitive enough and understand the problems, and certainly do not want to exacerbate the issue,” Cheng said in a telephone interview. “When higher authorities’ attention is caught, they usually will try to resolve the issue peacefully.”
A similar scenario played out yesterday near the city of Shantou, also in Guangdong, when thousands of villagers protesting the construction of a power plant dispersed after officials promised to suspend work, Xinhua reported.
The villagers blocked the Shenzhen-Shantou expressway for about six hours yesterday because they were upset about the environmental damage done by an existing generator, according to Xinhua. A publicity department official for the Shantou government, who declined to give her name, said city authorities had no comment in addition to what was reported by Xinhua.
In Wukan today, protesters called off the planned march and were gathering at roadblocks set up outside the village to see if the government would, as the residents had requested, release individuals detained by police.
“We’re now letting the government handle our requests,” Chen Liangzi, a 39-year-old resident of Wukan, said by telephone today. “As villagers, we need them to take our requests seriously. They’ve agreed to release our people. Everyone is there waiting.”
The unrest in Wukan first began in September, when disputes over land and village finances between residents and local officials led protesters to attack police and overturn cars, according to the Shanwei city government. Protests flared again this month after police detained five villagers on accusations that they had led demonstrations and one of the men, Xue Jinbo, died while in custody on Dec. 11.
Authorities have said Xue’s death was caused by heart failure and that his body showed no signs of assault. Luo Bin, deputy director of the Forensic Examination Center of Sun Yat-sen University, also excluded the possibility of “traumatic death,” according to the Shanwei city government.
To resolve the Wukan dispute, a work team will set up three branches to deal with land use, financing and the election of local officials, and will provide contact numbers to villagers that will be available “round the clock,” Xinhua said, citing Zhu. The group will handle all “reasonable” requests and seek to punish corruption “severely,” it said.
China earlier promised to compensate victims of illegal land grabs in the village. The government will reclaim 404 mu (26 acres) of land in the dispute and talk to villagers about the best way to develop it, according to an official who answered a hot line set up by the local government to handle inquiries about the protests. The official declined to give his name.
“In the urbanization process, land is a valuable commodity and as corrupt officials and developers take away land from the peasants, you will have a lot of conflicts,” Cheng of City University said. “Certainly villagers are more and more emboldened to protest.”
Zheng Yanxiong, Shanwei’s Communist Party chief and the city’s highest ranking official, called on residents to rely on the government and not to trust foreign media, according to video footage of a speech he delivered that was posted to the website of Hong Kong Cable TV yesterday. It was unclear when the speech was given.
Two Wukan village officials were removed from their posts last month and another resigned due to disciplinary misconduct, the Shanwei city government said in a statement on its website. The government last week also authorized legal action to be taken in investigating village officials, it said.
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