Thousands of people have protested in southern China against plans to build a new coal-fired power plant, following disagreements over pollution fears from an existing plant. Protesters say two students died in the unrest in the town of Haimen in Guangdong province, although police deny this.
This protest comes in the aftermath of another demonstration in the village of Wukan, also in Guangdong province. This is an anti-corruption movememnt that culminated last week in a local uprising, following the death in police custody of one of the protest leaders.
Residents in several villages near Wukan alleged that village officials had confiscated their farm land and sold it to for development to Country Garden, one of China’s largest developers. They alleged that the local communist party had pocketed RMB1 billion ($156m) from the sale, whilst the villagers had been left destitute.
When appeals to the authorities came to nothing, hundreds of people started a sit-in protest on 21 September.
The following days saw a brutal police crackdown on the protest.
Video footage shot by villagers in Wukan showed people of all ages being chased and beaten with truncheons by riot police. One Wukan villager described the police and other security staff as “like mad dogs, beating everyone they saw”.
The Financial Times reported that two children, aged nine and 13, were “badly injured”, and that one may have died. Villagers said elderly and children protesting peacefully were harassed and assaulted by “hired thugs”, provoking an angry reaction from villagers. The attacks on civilians by 400 police officers were described by the Financial Times as “indiscriminate”.
In a change of tactics, the authorities withdrew the police, perhaps at the insistence of the politically ambitious leader of the province, Wang Yang, who is tipped for a national political role in the future. This had the effect of diminishing the protests.
On December 9, one of the village leaders, Xue Jinbo, was arrested without a warrant. He later died in police custody, his body apparently covered in wounds.
Villagers were incensed, and promptly stormed the local police station, expelling both the police and local communist party officials.
A force of 1,000 police was quickly dispatched to surround the village, but the stand-off continued.
Eventually, on 21 December, villagers and officials came to an agreement. This included releasing other detainees, and handing over the corpse of Xue Jinbo to his family. Although officials are still claiming Mr Xue died of a heart attack (despite being caked in blood and with two broken thumbs), an independent autopsy has also been proposed.
The China Daily reports that by Zhu Mingguo, deputy Party chief of Guangdong, promised that “We’ll undergo a thorough investigation of the dispute and do our utmost to protect the villagers’ rights,” he said at a work meeting in which some 400 local officials and villagers participated on Tuesday in Lufeng county, which governs Wukan village.
Beijing is fully aware of the rising anger in the countryside. Rural tension is nothing new in the history of China, and numerous revolts have started there – not least the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet the issues of today are new.
First there is the huge gulf in wealth between city and countryside. Half the population lives in rural areas, but their (2010) annual average per capita disposable income of 5,900 yuan ($898) is less than a third of the average per capita disposable income of urban residents, which stands at 19,100 yuan ($2,900).
Second, welfare outside of the cities is a real problem. Until last month, the poverty threshold was set at around $0.50 a day and only captured 2.8% of the rural population; and it was only this group that was allowed to access most Government poverty-easing money. November though saw the Government raise the poverty line to $1 a day, which although lower than the World Bank limit of $1.25, still brings in a further 100 million people into poor group. Beijing is, in addition, adding $27 billion in poverty relief funds.
It is not only welfare which is missing. Access to services and the proceeds of the country’s increasing wealth are hard to find. As late as 2009 three of China’s poorest provinces – Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan – were identified by China’s banking regulator as having more than 50 unbanked counties. This meant that they lacked even basic access to financial services.
Finally, the remoteness of many rural communities – and the provinces they sit in – means that Beijing has less of a grip on them. Corruption, although relatively bad in urban areas, is often endemic in the countryside. Land theft, police abuse, and illegal deals by local Government can all make life decidedly uncomfortable for local residents.
With over 90,000 mass demonstrations a year (characterised by more than 25 people attending) across China, according to the
Chinese Government, there is plenty of internal strife. But many of the high-profile cases seem to come from Guangdong province.
What makes this part of China so vociferous in its demonstrations?
It may be that because it is next to Hong Kong protests here get more coverage than for example in Heibei or Shanxi.
On the same note, because Guangdong is next to the former colony – which is renowned in China as being a bastion of freedom and the rule of law – people living nearby may be more aware of their rights, and of the wrongs that are being committed.
Whatever foreign observers may say about China, one thing almost certain is that the leadership of the country have the best interests of the nation at heart. The President, Hu Jintao, is fondly known as Grandpa Hu for the caring manner he shows – he was for example quick to the scene of the major train crash in Wenzhou this summer.
The Government will also be acutely aware of how small demonstrations can quickly spread. Any large-scale protest would have to be put down hard, which would hardly go down well with the rest of the country – or China’s neighbours. And despite stringent controls on social media being brought in to reduce knowledge of the Wukan revolt – some Sina Weibo microbloggers told the BBC that internet searches related to Wukan and the area were blocked after the December uprising started, and villagers’ microblogs were deleted – it is highly likely that dissent could be cut off completely.
The recent rural welfare expansion is likely to be one of many measures coming over the next few years to ease the divide between city and countryside. But if these reforms are not carried out, for whatever reason, then expect Guangdong and many other provinces to loudly speak their mind.