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Catch 22 At Wukan

The Party has a thin line to walk in dealing with the outbreak of social unrest in Wukan, the Guangdong fishing village that has been in revolt since September over allegedly illegal land acquisitions by local officials. Authorities are laying siege to the rebellious village — a coastal fishing community of some 20,000 people within Shanwei township some 150 kilometers northwest of Hong Kong– following further demonstrations after the death this week of one of the protestors’ leaders, Xue Jinbo, in disputed circumstances while in police detention.

With no food or fuel being allowed into Wukan and their fishing fleet blockaded, villagers say they have supplies to hold out for 10 days. Internet connections have been severed and the electricity supply reportedly threatened to be cut off.

An attempt by armed police to reenter the village last weekend was rebuffed. With foreign reporters in the village and the protests gaining worldwide attention, regardless of internal censorship of the events, authorities cannot readily storm the village to retake it by overwhelming force. Instead they are trying carrot and stick: a promise of an investigation into the land transactions and the removal of a couple of local officials, but also stern threats of punishment for the protests’ leaders.

Yet rounding up the usual suspects is no longer an adequate response on the part of the authorities. Thousands of villagers, who were promised a similar investigation after a demonstration in November, are so far standing firm (and their organizers demonstrating global media savvy). But blockading Wukan starts a countdown clock for ending the stand-off one way or another.

Few demonstrations have found the spotlight as Wukan’s have, or been allowed to escalate as far, but the discontent that provoked them is not uncommon. Across the country, villagers accuse local officials of colluding with developers and illegally confiscating collectively owned land without offering fair or any compensation. During the November demonstrations in Wukan, one protester claimed that local officials had pocketed 700 million yuan ($110 million) from selling land to developers for factories, while each villager received merely 550 yuan ($86) in compensation.

Land disputes have become one of the leading causes of the tens of thousands of large-scale protests that occur in China every year. Violent confrontation between Chinese and their government is becoming more frequent. In September hundreds of villagers overturned police cars and besieged government buildings in Wukan in protest against the land seizures, to which police responded with force in equal measure.

Earlier this month, Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief, warned that the economic slowdown could lead to a rise in social unrest, and told local party and government officials to deal with potential conflicts to minimize social unrest. Guangdong has seen its share of protests by factory workers in the past year, but none proved as difficult for authorities to deal with as the restiveness in Wukan, largely because of the systemic local corruption involved in most cases of alleged illegal land seizures.

Corruption is one of the “four dangers” that President Hu Jintao warned against at the Party’s 90th birthday bash in July. Wukan’s residents have appealed to Beijing for justice. Central government may well have to descend from on high to resolve the situation, but that is likely to mean that it will not end well for either local officials or the villagers’ leaders. Yet Beijing faces a Catch-22: social unrest has to be put down because it is a threat to its rule, yet so is suppressing a widespread and legitimate grievance on the part of its citizens, who do not see objecting to the corruption of local officials as a criminal act.

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