WUKAN, China — Lin Zuluan and Yang Semao are wanted men.
The mayor of the city that oversees this farming and fishing village has publicly named the pair as main agitators of Wukan's recent rebellion against the local government. Acting Shanwei Mayor Wu Zili vowed to crack down on them and their allies, according to state media.
Such a threat would terrify most Chinese in a nation infamous for police state tactics. But on Friday morning, both men stood in front of a crowd of thousands here and railed against local corruption.
"The officials are lying to the villagers," Yang said, standing behind a large photograph of Xue Jinbo, a fellow advocate who died in police custody Sunday. A few minutes later, he burst into tears that were echoed by heaving sobs from the rows of people in front of him.
While the open flouting of government rule in Wukan almost certainly won't last very long — and it's occurring only in one nook of one province — moments such as the rally Friday are breathtaking for an authoritarian state. The leaders of the revolt, which has sealed off the village from security checkpoints, are attempting to make the point that, as Lin said, "the people who have committed crimes are the corrupt officials."
That is, the problem all along was Wukan's Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Despite the villagers' insistence that they're speaking only of local grievances — not criticizing the party at large or the central government — it's a volatile assertion to make in a nation with at times bone-crunchingly tight social controls. The delicacy of the matter is made especially clear against a backdrop of senior leaders such as the president and prime minister acknowledging that public trust has become an issue for the Communist Party.
Seated toward the middle of the platform at Friday's rally, Lin shrugged when he was asked about Chinese officials singling him out.
"I'm not afraid. This is about the interests of the village," said Lin, 65, who had a wad of white mourning cloth for Xue pinned to his black jacket like a carnation.
So far, Beijing is trying to contain Wukan's message both physically — with police at the main road leading into the village — and in the realm of public opinion by censoring news and comments on the Internet.
In the meantime, officials are trying to drive a wedge between locals. Some residents have received text messages urging, "Please calm down, the leaders are already dealing with the problem."
But calming the populace has become more complicated as China's rocketing economic expansion runs parallel with strictures on political discourse, a combustible mix that gives officials access to riches at the same time that it restrains citizens' ability to speak up.
Yang said that after he lived in the boomtown of Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub that like Wukan is in the eastern province of Guangdong, it was difficult to accept the suffocating amount of power that village rulers wielded.
"I had a great sense of belonging here, but our village had become very corrupt," said Yang, 44, who listed sales manager at an export company among his previous jobs.
Lin, who said he used to own a clothing shop in the city of Dongguan, voiced similar disdain. Off the top of his head, Lin said, he could name a dozen local bureaucrats who'd fled Wukan after recent clashes between villagers and police. The showdown sprang from allegations that village officials had sold — locals would say stole — collectively owned land and pocketed parts of the proceeds.
"I don't know where they took the money," Lin said with a wry smile.
Adding to the potential troubles, the government may have provided the rebels in Wukan with a martyr.
Xue Jinbo was part of a committee of 13 villagers, including Lin and Yang, that formed in September to negotiate with area officials after demonstrations and a police crackdown that month. After plainclothes security took Xue away last Friday, state media announced that he'd died Sunday of heart complications.
Xue's family and seemingly everyone else in Wukan thinks that he was murdered, and they cite as proof the government's refusal to release his body.
"For those who've seen my father's body, they believe that he was beaten to death," said Xue's son, Xue Jiandi, a 20-year-old university student in a brown flannel shirt and jeans.
During memorial services Friday for Xue Jinbo, groups of villagers walked down a green carpet in groups of 30 to 40, stopping to bow in unison and pay their respects to a picture of him. Women wailed beneath a blue funeral tent.
The procession of mourners lasted for hours.
At one point, a man stood outside and yelled: "There is no body! There is no body!"
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011