Something extraordinary has happened in the Chinese village of Wukan.
13 Dec 2011 -For the first time on record, the Chinese Communist party has lost all control, with the population of 20,000 in this southern fishing village now in open revolt.
The last of Wukan’s dozen party officials fled on Monday after thousands of people blocked armed police from retaking the village, standing firm against tear gas and water cannons.
Since then, the police have retreated to a roadblock, some three miles away, in order to prevent food and water from entering, and villagers from leaving. Wukan’s fishing fleet, its main source of income, has also been stopped from leaving harbour.
The plan appears to be to lay siege to Wukan and choke a rebellion which began three months ago when an angry mob, incensed at having the village’s land sold off, rampaged through the streets and overturned cars.
Although China suffers an estimated 180,000 “mass incidents” a year, it is unheard of for the Party to sound a retreat.
But on Tuesday The Daily Telegraph managed to gain access through a tight security cordon and witnessed the new reality in this coastal village.
Thousands of Wukan’s residents, incensed at the death of one of their leaders in police custody, gathered for a second day in front of a triple-roofed pagoda that serves as the village hall.
For five hours they sat on long benches, chanting, punching the air in unison and working themselves into a fury.
At the end of the day, a fifteen minute period of mourning for their fallen villager saw the crowd convulsed in sobs and wailing for revenge against the local government.
“Return the body! Return our brother! Return our farmland! Wukan has been wronged! Blood debt must be paid! Where is justice?” the crowd screamed out.
Wukan’s troubles began in September, when the villagers’ collective patience snapped at an attempt to take away their land and sell it to property developers.
“Almost all of our land has been taken away from us since the 1990s but we were relaxed about it before because we made our money from fishing,” said Yang Semao, one of the village elders. “Now, with inflation rising, we realise we should grow more food and that the land has a high value.”
Thousands of villagers stormed the local government offices, chasing out the party secretary who had governed Wukan for three decades. In response, riot police flooded the village, beating men, women and children indiscriminately, according to the villagers.
In the aftermath, the local government tried to soothe the bruised villagers, asking them to appoint 13 of their own to mediate between the two sides – a move which was praised. But after anger bubbled over again local officials hatched another plan to bring the rebellious village back under control. Last Friday, at 11.45 in the morning, four minibuses without license plates drove into Wukan and a team of men in plain clothes seized five of the village’s 13 representatives from a roadside restaurant.
A second attack came at 4am on Sunday morning, when a thousand armed police approached the entrance to the village.
“We had a team of 20 people watching out, and they saw the police searchlights. We had blocked the road with fallen trees to buy us time,” said Chen Xidong, a 23 year old. “They banged the warning drum and the entire village ran to block the police.”
After a tense two-hour standoff, during which the villagers were hit with tear gas and water cannons, the police retreated, instead setting up the ring of steel around Wukan that is in force today. The village’s only source of food, at present, are the baskets of rice, fruit and vegetables carried across the fields on the shoulder poles of friendly neighbours.
Then, on Monday, came the news that Xue Jinbo, one of the snatched representatives, had died in police custody, at the age of 43, from a heart attack. His family believe he was murdered.
“There were cuts and bruises on the corners of his mouth and on his forehead, and both his nostrils were full of blood,” said Xue Jianwan, his 21-year-old daughter. “His chest was grazed and his thumbs looked like they had been broken backwards. Both his knees were black,” she added. “They refused to release the body to us.”
Mr Xue’s death has galvanised his supporters and brought the explosive situation in the village to the brink. “We are not sleeping. A hundred men are keeping watch. We do not know what the government’s next move will be, but we know we cannot trust them ever again,” said Mr Chen. “I think they will try to prolong the situation, to sweat us out.”
From behind the roadblock, a propaganda war has broken out. Banners slung by the side of the main road to Wukan urge drivers to “Safeguard stability against anarchy – Support the government!” Nearby, someone has scrawled, simply: “Give us back our land.”
The news of Wukan’s loss has been censored inside China. But a blue screen, which interrupts television programmes every few minutes inside the village, insists that the “incidents” are the work of a seditious minority, and have now been calmed. “It is all lies,” said Ms Xue.
Her brother, meanwhile, said life had improved since the first officials were driven out three months ago. “We found we were better at administration. The old officials turned out not to have had any accounts in their office, so they must have been swindling us. And we have a nightwatch now, to keep the village safe. We have all bonded together,” said Xue Jiandi, 19.
With enough food to keep going in the short-term and a pharmacy to tend to the sick, the leaders of Wukan are confident about their situation.
But it is difficult to imagine that it will be long before the Communist Party returns, and there are still four villagers in police custody.
“I have just been to see my 25-year-old son,” Shen Shaorong, the mother of Zhang Jianding, one of the four, said as she cried on her knees. “He has been beaten to a pulp and his clothes were ripped. Please tell the government in Beijing to help us before they kill us all,”