Southern Chinese village defies officials to demand democracy

SHANGPU, China (AFP) - Villagers in southern China were locked in a standoff with authorities on Sunday and were demanding democratic polls after a violent clash with thugs linked to a local official over a land transfer.

Just over a week ago, residents of Shangpu in Guangdong province fought with scores of attackers whom they claimed were sent by the village communist party chief and a business tycoon after they protested against a land deal.

Now police are blockading the settlement to outsiders while residents refuse to let officials inside, days before the annual meeting of the country's legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC).

The situation recalls a similar episode in Wukan, also in Guangdong and around 100km from Shangpu, which made headlines worldwide 15 months ago.

AFP is believed to be the first Western media organisation to enter Shangpu since the standoff began.

At the main entrance of the village of 3,000 people, 40 police and officials stood guard, barring outside vehicles from entering. Not far away, a cloth banner read: "Strongly request legal, democratic elections."

Shangpu's two-storey houses, typical of the region, and low-slung family-run workshops are surrounded by fields awaiting spring planting. But the main street is lined with the wrecks of cars damaged in the clash, with glass and metal littering the ground.

Residents said they should have the right to vote both for the leader who represents them and on whether to approve a controversial proposal to transform rice fields into an industrial zone.

"This should be decided by a vote by villagers," said one of the protest leaders, adding: "The village chief should represent our interests, but he doesn't."

Locals fear that once the NPC - which starts Tuesday - ends, authorities will move in with force.

China's parliament is widely seen as a "rubber stamp" whose hand-picked members do the bidding of the ruling party. Chinese leaders have repeatedly ruled out Western-style democracy for the country.

"For the purpose of maintaining stability, they (authorities) don't want to use forceful measures before the meetings," another villager said. "We are afraid of them coming back."

The unidentified attackers, some of whom wore orange hard hats and red armbands, drove into the village and turned on residents with shovels and other weapons.

Villagers drove them off by hitting them with bamboo poles and throwing bricks from a nearby construction site. They then vented their fury on the attackers' cars, overturning and smashing as many as 29 vehicles.

Residents claimed some of the group had knives and a gun. A video showed a man firing a handgun into the air and villagers said he was a plainclothes police officer trying to intercede. At least eight villagers were injured.

In Wukan in late 2011, a protest by residents against a land grab by local officials accused of corruption escalated after one of their leaders died in police custody.

Villagers barricaded roads and faced off against security forces for 10 days, until authorities backed down and promised them rare concessions. Residents were later allowed to hold open village elections - a first in Wukan.

The people of Shangpu had heard of Wukan indirectly, and had similar demands: free elections for their leader.

They claim the current village chief Li Baoyu, who is also the party head, was foisted on them by higher authorities.

Residents allege that Mr Li fraudulently obtained signatures to support the transfer of 33 hectares of farmland to the Wanfeng Investment Co, backed by businessman Wu Guicun, to be used for factories producing electrical cables.

The village's ruling committee will receive compensation based on the yield of rice that would have been planted on the land. But residents fear they themselves will not be paid and say the compensation does not reflect the true value.

"Village cadres have illegally dealt in land and leased land at a low price," they said in a petition to higher officials.

In the government's only official statement on the case, Jiexi county, which administers the village, pledged to pursue those responsible for the attack and bring criminal prosecutions.

No one from Wanfeng Investment Co could be reached for comment.

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