The conflict in Wukan, a coastal settlement of 20,000 people near the country’s industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, escalated Monday after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Communist Party had died in police custody. The authorities say a heart attack killed the 42-year-old man, but relatives say his body bore signs of torture.
Residents set up blockades to keep out the police and prevent more arrests. Some residents said armed riot police officers were blocking shipments of food and water into the village in an attempt to suppress the uprising.
Spasms of social turmoil in China have become increasingly common, a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. But the clashes in Wukan, which first erupted in September, are unusual for their longevity — and for the brazenness of the villagers as they call attention to their frustrations.
Despite the government’s best efforts to control social media outlets, such frustrations have only grown as millions of Chinese gain access to unofficial sources of information and use new tools to organize protests.
Last year, there were as many as 180,000 outbursts of what sociologists here describe as “mass incidents”: strikes, sit-ins, rallies and violent clashes that have mushroomed alongside China’s breakneck economic expansion. Government figures from the mid-1990s put the number of such episodes at fewer than 10,000.
“People don’t have sufficient faith in legal procedures or the media and feel they have no redress when bad things are done to them,” said Martin K. Whyte, a Harvard sociologist who studies Chinese social trends.
Some protests are prompted by worsening pollution, claims of unpaid wages or police brutality. A major source of unrest, including in Wukan, is the seizure of land by well-connected private developers or government officials, which involves forced evictions for meager compensation.
More than just unalloyed greed, these seizures are supported by local governments that have come to rely on proceeds of land sales and development to pay for day-to-day operations.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, residents of Wukan said throngs of people were staging a rally outside Wukan’s village hall while men with walkie-talkies used tree limbs to obstruct roads leading to the town. Not far away, heavily armed riot police officers were maintaining their own roadblocks. The siege has prevented some deliveries from reaching the town, but residents said they had managed to get supplies from nearby villages.
A top Communist Party official in Shanwei, whose jurisdiction includes Wukan, said that the allegations of illegal land seizure would be investigated but that villagers who played a role in organizing the clashes would be punished. Referring to Xue Jinbo, the 42-year-old representative who died, the acting mayor of Shanwei, Wu Zili, told reporters on Wednesday: “The death of Xue Jinbo was unlucky. But the family of Xue Jinbo is now calm.”
The discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade. Residents say land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes. Villagers say more than 1,000 acres have been seized and resold to developers in the past decade or so.
The residents’ ire exploded in September, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the sale of a village-owned pig farm for luxury housing that netted the government $156 million. In addition to greater compensation and a public accounting about that deal and earlier ones, the residents called for democratic elections to replace village officials, including the party secretary, who has been in power since the early 1980s. After two days of demonstrations, during which police vehicles were destroyed and government buildings ransacked, the police moved in with what residents described as excessive brutality.
Shi Da contributed research.