VIENNA, Va., December 14, 2011 — One of my first memories associated with China, sadly, is that of a man standing in front of a column of army tanks.
It was June 4, 1989, a day of terrible loss and brutal death in Beijing, a day that stained the already soiled image of the Communist Party in China.
Now, as I read about the revolt taking place in a coastal village named Wukan in Guangdong province – Party officials have reportedly fled, police have set up an armed ring around the village – I hope and pray that, this time, the protest will not turn into a bloodbath.
On Wednesday, Time magazine named “The Protester” its Person of the Year. Across the world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Russia and here in the US, protests have sparked discussion, led TV newscasts, set off violence and, in some cases, brought about regime change.
Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protesters have made their case with pithy signs and overnight stays in parks, with chants and with the support of politicians and celebrities. But compared to many of the protesters in other far-flung places, those in the US have had to put relatively little on the line – other than, perhaps, a few lost hours of pay, and maybe a night on a jailhouse cot.
I was in Berkeley, California, over Thanksgiving and was browsing shelves in a used bookstore when another patron dialed up a friend on her phone and asked if he wanted to join her at Occupy San Francisco. The friend seemed to jump at the chance without much thought.
“It’s not going to be easy,” cautioned the young woman, or something to that effect. “The nights can be long.”
I am reminded of that young woman today as I read about the 20,000 people in Wukan village, Guangdong province. I can’t imagine how long their nights must feel, knowing that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of armed police could swoop in on them at any moment in the coming days.
The Daily Telegraph’s Shanghai correspondent Malcolm Moore was, to my knowledge, the only Western reporter – possibly the only journalist of any kind – in the town this week (as of Wednesday). And his reporting – via Twitter, Google+ and his newspaper – has been first-rate.
Here’s the back-story: Villagers say that in September government officials illegally took control of farmland and sold it to developers without offering proper compensation. The villagers then protested, ransacking government buildings and damaging other government property.
Riot police were called in to restore order, and they did, for a time. As a concession, Lufeng County officials fired two village officials, according to The New York Times, and said they would negotiate with a group of 13 village representatives.
However, these discussions quickly soured after a county spokesperson said that Wukan’s representatives were in cahoots with “overseas forces that want to sow divisions between the government and villagers.”
The villagers responded by re-starting their protests and running the remaining officials out of town.
Last Friday, a group of plain-clothes policemen reportedly came into the village and arrested five of the 13 representatives. On Monday, one of them turned up dead – due to cardiac arrest, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
Multiple reports, including Moore’s, are disputing that claim, citing bruised knees, “nostrils caked with blood”, and broken thumbs – injuries reportedly seen by family members who received permission to attend to his body at a funeral home.
Angrier than ever, the villagers now say they will not relent in their protest until the village and county governments involved admit wrongdoing on all charges – illegal land-grabs, violence and murder.
‘Where is justice?’
On Wednesday, villagers mourned the loss of their representative, a butcher named Xue Jinbo. They occupied a main city space and chanted, “Return the body! Return our brother! Return our farmland! Wukan has been wronged! Blood debt must be paid! Where is justice?”
Later that evening, Moore tweeted: “Dark now in Wukan. No change in situation. At the market, we were told there’s enough food for ten days more.”
He slipped out of the village hours later.
“We’ve just broken back out of Wukan. Hate to leave, but we felt we were putting others in danger,” he wrote.
I asked Moore via Twitter if the villagers seemed afraid of what might happen as a result of their continued protest.
“Yes,” he replied. “But they are determined and united as well.”
In the Time story about “The Protester”, Frank Castro, a 53-year-old Teamster who participated in Occupy Oakland, was quoted as saying, “I think other parts of the world have more balls than we do.”
You can now add the villagers of Wukan to the list.
My Chinese friends tell me that a lot has changed in their country since the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the bloodbath at Tiananmen Square in 1989. And they are correct.
In the coming days, perhaps we will see just how much the country’s leaders have changed.
Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four working as a writer and section editor at a state-owned weekly newspaper in Beijing. He is currently the website and communications manager for the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia.
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