AFP - Getty Images
An undated cellphone picture shows thousands of residents of Wukan village in China's Guangdong province carrying a banner saying "Wukan's people were treated unjustly" during a protest of alleged illegal land seizures.
BEIJING– For years, in the name of social harmony, China’s ruling Communist Party has been highly successful in masking, placating or simply distorting the tens of thousands of protests – dubbed “mass demonstrations” – that occur here ever year.
The Wukan rebellion will prove a tougher dilemma for Beijing to solve.
From The Telegraph newspaper’s Malcolm Moore comes details of the stunning story of Wukan, a fishing village of 20,000 in China’s southern Guangdong Province. Earlier this week, the entire town rose up and threw out local party officials and police forces following years of having the people’s land sold out from underneath them.
The villagers’ frustration mixed with anger over news that one of the protest organizers, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody, allegedly from a heart attack. Since the start of the revolt in September, Wukan residents have successfully thwarted multiple attempts by the police to re-enter the town by creating roadblocks out of fallen trees or just using themselves.
They are now in a tense standoff with security forces, which earlier formed a cordon around Wukan--although a villager inside the perimeter told NBC News earlier today by phone that the cordon has been removed, leaving one checkpoint blocking the central access into the town.
Scores of state security officers are said to be still positioned around the edge of Wukan, which has begun seven days of mourning for the fallen protest leader.
Moore also reports that the town has enough food to last ten more days and that the security cordon is in fact still in effect (Click here to read more on how Malcolm Moore slipped through the security cordon).
That we know anything about this explosive story – which has been months in the making but appears to be coming to a head this week – is largely due to Moore, who earlier successfully slipped through the security cordon and since has been filing articles and Tweets on events occurring within Wukan. (Follow him on twitter: @MalcolmMoore)
The reports have given everyone a rare inside look at the mindset and mechanics of a popular uprising in China--a rarity for foreign journalists who often face tight, sometimes arbitrary restrictions, and harassment by local government forces when trying to report on issues deemed sensitive.
The Chinese village of Wukan in China's southern Guangdong Province had enough of local government corruption and threw out local party officials earlier this year. Now they are in a tense standoff with security forces who have formed a cordon around the town, cutting it off from the outside world. See video of the protests.
Slipping through China’s security
To say that foreign journalists in China know a thing or two about security cordons is an understatement.
Over the years, the security apparatus has become exceptionally good at quickly sealing off and containing problem areas while at the same time wallpapering over dissent with state media coverage.
In 2008, during the spring Tibetan uprisings, NBC attempted multiple times to enter the Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province for coverage but was turned back by security forces that had formed roadblocks around the region to prevent independent reporters and observers from entering.
Similar restrictions have continued this year. Journalists have attempted to enter those areas again following a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans that has called renewed attention to the plight of China’s Tibetan minority.
Most recently, local government officials in the Shandong town of Linyi have effectively bottled up local dissent by keeping blind lawyer and social activist, Chen Guangcheng, under perpetual house arrest.
Supporters of Chen – who in 2006 famously filed a lawsuit on behalf of his fellow residents against the local government over its practice of forced abortions and sterilizations – and foreign journalists have attempted many times this year to visit the activist and his family. But they’ve been met at the town’s edge by plain-clothed security agents who forcibly restrict visitors from entering by throwing rocks and swinging sticks.
It was only in the last week – under intense public pressure – that the provincial government of Shandong intervened, permitting ulcer medicine to be brought to Chen.
Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images
Armed police in riot gear stand at a roadblock en route to Wukan on Wednesday. Residents of the village, which was surrounded by police after protests over the death in custody of a community, leader vowed to continue their fight for land rights.
Will other Chinese dominos fall?
The dramatic chain of events in Wukan begs the obvious question, could this be the proverbial “first domino” that falls in a wave of similar copycat protests nationwide? As Moore stresses in his coverage of the rebellion, the people of Wukan are counting on the central government to come to the rescue and depose the corrupt local officials whom they believe responsible for their current plight.
That hope has manifested itself in the numerous rumors, as Moore reports, swirling around the village. The most recent is that China’s state news channel, CCTV, is coming later this week to cover the standoff. Some of the villagers have concluded amongst themselves that national coverage of their plight will lead to swift action by China’s ruling party against the corrupt Wukan government.
How the central government manages Wukan’s revolt against party authority is a source of intense speculation. Its action will generate strong responses both nationally and abroad and will reveal to China watchers which audience the party wishes to anger less.
On one hand, Beijing could do as Wukan’s villagers wish and come down hard on the local officials, reaffirming the Communist Party’s often-repeated mantra of “serving the people.” This path, however, could have the unintended consequence of convincing local governments throughout the mainland that Beijing is willing to sell out its own in order to preserve social harmony, potentially forming a rift between local and central government apparatuses.
On the other hand, Beijing could determine that preservation of Party rule is the single most important priority and elect to crush the rebellion through force or the threat of it. Such a tack would instantly draw international condemnation, but as China has shown in the past international opinion plays a very distant second to its interest in preserving national stability.
A dark horse in changing that thinking is the ever-evolving Chinese blogosphere, which increasingly has filled the role as national zeitgeist. Ironically, even as state censors work overtime to scrub the web of news and discussion of socially delicate issues like Wukan, decision-makers here increasingly must account for public reaction on these matters and factor potential online anger in the complex calculus that is governing.
Where China will fall on this matter remains to be seen, but the next few days will tell us a lot about how Beijing plans to handle mass disturbances in the near future.
NBC News producer Bo Gu contributed to this report.