China's Wukan village stands up for land rights

Many protesters say they will continue to make a stand, despite government concessions

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At first light, the sound of mourning music could be heard across the rooftops.

Wukan - home to more than 10,000 people - is a village in revolt.

Local officials have fled and the villagers have set up makeshift roadblocks - branches covering the street - at the village's entrances.

This week the villagers' fury reached a new pitch after they alleged that the authorities had beaten to death one of their own.

That is denied by local officials, who say the villager died of natural causes while being held in police custody.

But in the early afternoon thousands of people gathered to call for justice. They heard village elders speaking under a giant pagoda.

There were chants of "Down with corrupt officials!" and "Return the land!"

Many also chanted "Long Live the Communist Party!"

'Crackdown' footage
Protesters show a portrait of deceased village leader Xue Jinbo The authorities are yet to release Xue Jinbo's body

Their fury was focused on local officials, not the central government who many here see as honest.

What is happening in Wukan is an extraordinary view of the social tensions that exist in China.

The dispute centres on land - a source of tens of thousands of protests across the country every year.

Villagers say that the authorities confiscated their last parcel of land in September in order to sell it to developers.

Instead of meekly accepting the decision, the villagers chose to fight.

But defiance has come at a cost.

Villagers showed me footage of what they said was hundreds of police officers storming the village.

You can see the police with batons beating villagers. Locals said they had also fired tear gas and used water cannon.

Wider trend?

China's village unrest

  • 14 Dec 11: Stand-off in Wukan after a villager dies in police custody
  • 21-23 Sep 11: Three days of rioting in Wukan
  • Nov 08: Protesters attack government buildings over plans to demolish homes in Gansu province
  • Apr 08: One person killed as police fire on protesters in Sanxi village, Yunnan province
  • March 07: Up to 20,000 rural workers clash with police in Hunan province
  • Jan 06: Police break up protest in Sanjiao, Guangdong province, over land grabs
  • Dec 05: Police shoot dead a number of protesters in Dongzhou, Guangdong
  • July 05: Villagers in Taishi, Guangdong try to oust mayor
  • June 05: Six farmers die in a fight with armed men in Shengyou, Hebei province
  • April 05: Some 20,000 peasants drive off more than 1,000 riot police in Huaxi, Zhejiang province
  • Nov 04: Paramilitary troops put down uprising of about 100,000 farmers in Sichuan province

On Friday, Wukan plans to bury the villager who died in police custody.

His name is Xue Jingbo. He was actually negotiating on behalf of the village with the authorities to resolve this dispute.

At a funeral tent, his 21-year-old daughter was choked with emotion.

She said the authorities had yet to release her father's body and needed to explain his death.

"We know his wish was to get his land back and punish corrupt officials," she said. "He sacrificed himself - and now we'll make a sacrifice to fight for his cause."

The local authorities say they will halt the land project at the heart of this dispute.

But in Wukan all trust has been lost, and many people say they will continue to make a stand.

One villager told me that they wanted to be allowed to elect their own chiefs.

In Beijing, there will be deep concern if what's happened in a small village becomes part of a wider trend.

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