PANHE, China — The old woman walked over to the door and peeked out from behind a blue curtain, looking slowly from one side of the street to other. She muttered to those huddled in the room behind her, “the police will come.”
The men, who’d been talking about officials stealing their land in Panhe, fell quiet. They knew what a visit would mean — threats, beatings and then getting dragged off by the police.
In December, a high-profile standoff between residents and Communist Party bosses in a fishing village named Wukan, about 450 miles southwest of Panhe, ended peacefully. That case had some observers wondering if Chinese officials had changed the way they dealt with the intertwined problems of land rights and corruption.
What happened here suggests otherwise.
Earlier this month, people in Panhe marched to protest what they said was the theft by local leaders of communal lands. The complaints were met by a crackdown. Police and plainclothes security men hauled away at least 30 people. Villagers said the roundup targeted the protest organizers they’d selected to negotiate with the government.
“The officials took away all of the young people who were getting on the Internet,” said one farmer, a 50-year-old man who like many interviewed asked that his name not be used for fear of arrest.
Panhe has become another in a long line of Chinese villages where locals say that corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen conspired to steal land or otherwise rob the poor.
When residents stage demonstrations in hopes of gaining justice, the main leaders are often whisked away in police cars. Then after the government makes perfunctory promises, all goes back to the way it was before.
Wukan was different. There, with a crowd of foreign journalists on hand, Chinese officials took another course. The village chief accused of corruption was deposed. A main figure in the uprising was named the local Communist Party secretary. New elections, heralded as unusually free and open, will be held Thursday to select Wukan’s leadership.
Wukan, however, has not turned out to be a model for the rest of the nation, at least so far.
A police checkpoint now sits at the entrance of Panhe, watching closely for who comes and goes. People interviewed inside the village say officials forced residents to post online notes saying the situation was resolved. State-controlled media in the region have tried to put the matter to rest, reporting that “the villagers are emotionally stable, the whole issue is being dealt with actively.”
“What happened after the demonstrations, with the government clamping down, has been painful,” said a 45-year-old farmer named Lu, a common surname in this area. “There’s nothing we can do. Everything is being controlled. All of the information is being controlled.”
Panhe and Wukan are similar in many ways. Both are low-slung hamlets on China’s coastline where locals rose up after so much land allegedly had been stolen that they began to worry there wasn’t enough left for them to make a living.
But when the villagers of Wukan fought off a police raid and erected barricades, provincial authorities reacted unexpectedly. Instead of sending in troops to deliver a crushing blow, they negotiated an outcome that some pointed to as a possible sign of budding political evolution.
The reason why that didn’t happen in Panhe is a matter of conjecture, hidden by the obscurities of an authoritarian regime.
China’s central leadership is thought to be divided on how to deal with land rights. It’s possible that one faction saw Wukan as a trial run for change but that others favor a tougher approach, and the disagreement is not yet settled.
Or the difference may be because of nothing more than the personality of the provincial leadership in Guangdong province, where Wukan sits. The Communist Party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, has a reputation for being reform-minded. He is considered a contender this year for a seat on the nation’s politburo standing committee, the very center of the regime’s power. Wang’s political ambitions could have been hurt by a messy operation, in full view of the world, to wrest control of Wukan by force.
Whatever the reason, few in Panhe seem optimistic.
The woman peering through the window at the door, a 73-year-old with short gray hair, said the police took her son on Feb. 15. “It was because he was going to the protests,” she said, asking to remain anonymous.
Police had released one of the men in the room just three days earlier. He’d been held four months after he and a group of villagers tore down a wall at a construction site in October.
The man said that until the wall went up, apparently for a factory, he and most others in Panhe didn’t realize the land had been sold.
“The police wanted me to agree to give our land to the officials,” said a farmer, 46, who also asked that his name not be used. “They wanted me to sign something saying that I agreed, but I wouldn’t do it.”
Officials maintain Panhe’s residents fundamentally misunderstood what happened. The land that was sold to a series of companies for development in the past several years — more than 100 acres by the most conservative estimate — included a series of tidal flats that residents had used to cultivate clams and other seafood.
The flats were state-owned, not the collective property of the village, officials have told state media.
The compensation due to the village after the sales was used to improve roads and other infrastructure, the officials said.
Villagers disagree. They say the real estate in question included collectively owned farmland. Beyond how the land was classified, they say, the entire process was cloaked in secrecy between local officials and their cronies. That coterie, villagers allege, then grabbed the cash that should have gone to those who’d lost their property.
A McClatchy reporter who made it past the police early one recent morning was not the first outsider to reach here. A Dutch journalist who traveled to Panhe on Feb. 15 had his interviews interrupted by a large group of men who broke into the room and beat him and those he’d met with. On the way out of town, the Dutch journalist was reportedly pulled from a car and assaulted once more.
The next day, a French reporter was stopped after passing through a tollbooth some 12 miles outside of Panhe. After his car was hit by another vehicle, a mob beat his Chinese assistant in the face until his nose and forehead were bloody.
Government representatives later explained that the men were supporters of the Panhe administration who’d gotten upset about foreign journalists coming to the area, according to an account emailed by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China to its members.
One woman who met with McClatchy took down the reporter’s cell phone number on the back of a toothpaste box, which she then folded up to look like a piece of trash. She said that a protest leader would be in touch later in the day.
The person who called, a businessman surnamed Lu, knew that police had been monitoring cell phone conversations in the area but said he wanted to talk anyway.
“We petitioned at three levels of government but no one would listen to us,” said Lu. “The power of the county government is bigger than the law. The reason why we began demonstrating is that we had nowhere to turn.”
Lu said that he’d been a minor player in getting the protests together. Now, he’s one of the few still free.
“Our main organizers have been taken away,” he said. “The officials told us not to send text messages or get on the Internet to talk about this situation.”
The wife of one outspoken activist was assaulted by police and her legs had been badly injured, said Lu.
He wanted to arrange an interview between the wife and a reporter. When McClatchy tried contacting him later, though, Lu’s phone was turned off.