A Village In Open Revolt

Residents of Wukan, a fishing village in the southern province of Guangdong, rally to demand the government take action over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The residents of a Chinese village called Wukan chased all the police officers and government officials out of town this week, after a local 42-year old man died in police custody. The village is now in open revolt, and has set up blockades to keep out police, according to news reports.

The original source of tension in Wukan is a common one in contemporary China: A land dispute between local people and government officials. Two key facts related to this point:

1. The value of real estate has been going through the roof.

2. No one is allowed to own land anywhere in China.

In the cities, the land is owned by the government. When you buy or sell an apartment in urban China, you're basically buying or selling the right to the apartment for a certain amount of time (70 years or less).

In rural areas, the land is owned by agricultural collectives that were created under Mao. Collectives can have hundreds or thousands of members, but they're effectively controlled by local Communist Party officials, Patrick Randolph, of the Center for Real Estate Law at Peking University, told me.

As China has boomed, it's become common for local officials to sell development rights to land the farmers have been allowed to work. The Chinese magazine Caixin reported reported on the conflict in Wukan earlier this year:

According to one protester surnamed Zhang, the villagers were angry that the local government had confiscated more than 80 percent of the collectively-owned farmland in Wukan in the last few years, which amounted to 275 hectares. Local government officials pocketed over 700 million yuan from selling the land for property development, he said, while each villager only received 550 yuan in compensation.

The town butcher was one of the protestors negotiating with local officials to try to settle the dispute. He was taken into custody last week, and died on December 11. Officials say he died of a heart attack, but local residents say he was killed.

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