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Villagers defiant as government creates new narrative

Afp Photo / AFP - Getty Images

Residents of Wukan, a fishing village in the southern province of Guangdong march to demand the government take action over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader on Thursday. Click on the photo to see more images from the village.


BEIJING – As the Chinese village of Wukan entered its fifth day besieged by a police cordon cutting off food and water from entering the village, reports from inside the cordon suggest villagers have continued to resist government overtures to end their protest.

What’s going on outside the cordon, though, is a very different story.

Even as Chinese and foreign press have begun sneaking around the security cordon into town – likely assuring at least temporarily that no draconian, military-style raid on the villagers occurs – Chinese state media have started to create an alternative and unverifiable storyline about what triggered the hostilities.

‘Official’ version of events
The China Media Project at Hong Kong University noted Thursday that late last night, the state-run China News Service reported on a press conference that allegedly confirmed that “preliminary investigations have ruled out external force as the cause of death” in the case of Xue Jinbo.

Xue, a village representative who was detained along with several other local leaders by police last Friday during a raid on Wukan, died in custody – alleged of a heart attack.

But his family was permitted to see the body and reported seeing fractures and bruising all over his body. And they were not permitted to take his remains home for burial.

However, the China News Service report said the town’s medical expert had shared photographic evidence of Xue’s body which refuted the family’s accusations that police beatings caused his death. The reporter was allegedly not permitted copies of the photos for publication.

Xue’s death and its suspicious circumstances sparked the mass protests in Wukan that eventually drove village officials and police out of the area earlier this week.

Another report from the China News Service said various Wukan village officials had been detained for discipline violations.

Afp Photo / AFP - Getty Images

Residents prepare for the funeral of Xue Jinbo, a local leader who died in police custody, in the fishing village of Wukan in the southern province of Guangdong on Thursday.

That no other local Chinese media – and certainly no foreign press – had reported on the press conference suggests that local government officials are engaging in what the China Media Project dubbed, “public opinion channeling” tactics.

In layman’s terms: they are dictating the narrative by creating only one plausible sequence of events.

The two separate reports are intended to get the following results:
1) Absolve local police of brutality and murder accusations – eliminating at least one of the reasons for unrest in Wukan.
2) “Detaining” – as opposed to arresting – Wukan’s senior officials demonstrate that the government is being pro-active against corruption, without officially conceding guilt. And it obfuscates the other central reason behind the villagers’ anger – illegal land seizures.

PHOTO BLOG: Chinese villagers defy government in standoff over land rights

Scapegoat a few
Another piece of the local government’s strategy to quell the unrest has emerged: scapegoat a few to spare the majority.

The Shanwei County government Thursday named two village leaders it claims are ringleaders behind the revolt and vowed harsh punishments for them and other protest leaders.

Wu Zili, the acting mayor of Shanwei County, accused two village leaders, Lin Zulian and Yang Semao, of actively spreading rumors and encouraging villagers to build barricades around the city. The mayor gravely warned that “the authorities will firmly crack down on anyone who organizes and incites the villagers,” according to Telegraph reporter Malcolm Moore.    
For longtime China watchers, the combination of the earlier local media reports, news that the government is attempting to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff and Mayor Wu’s threat toward the supposed ringleaders are clear signals that the government is eager to bring an end to the conflict by providing an exit plan for the majority of Wukan’s citizens.

However, taking that path will come with a price: selling out the people the government has branded as ringleaders of the rebellion.

For at least one person, this is unacceptable. “Everything they said at the press conference [about Lin and Yang] is a lie!” said one villager NBC News reached by phone Thursday afternoon. “We simply elected those two to be our representatives.”

Villagers’ side of the story: Beijing will come to the rescue
Villagers in Wukan Thursday were actively working the phones, talking to the media who called in or slipped into town. However, as the world’s attention has started to focus on the events in Guangdong, they appeared anxious to push their own storyline, which is full of condemnation for corrupt local officials and deep-rooted respect for the central government, which they seem confident will come to their rescue.

“We don’t want any foreign press here! We expect the central government to come here and rescue us,” said another villager by phone, “We have great leaders in [President] Hu Jintao and [Prime Minister] Wen Jiabao!”

However, that sentiment is not shared by all. As one Wukan native told NBC, “If the press was not here, the police would come into the village and harass us.”

National implications
Whatever tact the local government takes in Wukan, the results could have serious implications for one man in particular: Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong Province.

With China poised to complete a rare leadership change next year, Wang had in recent years been positioning himself to compete for a promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, which serves effectively as the nation’s top political body.

Having championed a “Happy Guangdong” campaign that he claimed would focus on improving the living standards in the province, Wang has instead found himself dealing with labor protests that have coincided with the economic slowdown in China. Public anger over rising inflation and fewer jobs has led to factory strikes and violence throughout Guangdong, which has been dubbed “The Workshop of the World.”

Now with open rebellion in what was once proudly referred to as a “model village,” Wang finds himself struggling to peacefully and definitively end the uprising – before it kills his chances of being elevated to the standing committee.

Until that elusive win-win resolution appears, expect the siege of Wukan to continue.

NBC News Producer Bo Gu contributed to this report.

Related link: Rebellious Chinese village under siege by police