On early Sunday, a reported 3,000 police and security troops surrounded the Chinese village of Shangpu. They fired tear gas, severed communications, shut off the electricity, and removed wrecked vehicles. They cleared off roadblocks that residents had erected. Some 30 to 40 villagers were hurt in fierce fighting. “It’s an extremely serious situation,” one resident told AFP. “They injured many people.”
The incident began in February when villagers fought pitched battles with dozens of thugs sent by Li Baoyu to break up a protest against a seizure of 33 hectares of farmland. Li, the Communist Party chief of the village, had arranged for the land to be transferred to Wanfeng Investment, controlled by businessman Wu Guicun. Wu had planned to build factories making electrical cables.
Residents, after driving off Li’s attackers, set up blockades around Shangpu. This weekend, authorities cleared the barricades and announced the arrest of Li and eight others. Officials say they are also looking for 21 additional suspects. A spokesman for Jiexi County, which includes Shangpu, announced a local court had cancelled the land transaction. The county also revealed it had removed two officials.
Shangpu residents are skeptical. Said a villager to AFP, “The government uses illegal methods to cheat people. How can we believe them?”
And that is the reason why the villagers are not content with just the return of their land. At the barricades they have been chanting for local elections—in other words, democracy. The Shangpu standoff bore an eerie resemblance to one in Wukan, about 60 miles away, in late 2011. Wukan villagers protested a similar land seizure and took control of their community, ejecting Communist Party officials. Residents attracted worldwide attention and eventually won a promise of elections.
March 3rd marked the first anniversary of the balloting in Wukan to elect a seven-member committee, which replaced the one that provincial authorities removed after the insurrection. Now, villagers there are not happy with the representatives they elected and are complaining about the way things worked out. Lin Zuluan, the newly elected chief of the village, has said he regretted taking part in the experiment.
Of course, the Communist Party has not given democracy a fair shake in Wukan, as it has deliberately starved the village of funds and has tried to reassert control over residents, putting them under strict surveillance, restricting their travel, and detaining them at will.
The difficulties in Wukan, however, have not stopped Shangpu’s villagers from fighting for their land—or calling for their own form of government.
The Chinese people are not giving up on governing themselves. The spirit of Wukan continues.