By Malcolm Moore

The eyes of the world were turned to the fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province. Angered by illegal land grabs, the villagers drove out local officials and Communist Party chiefs and faced down a police siege. To some it seemed that revolution was brewing.

But instead of the expected police crack-down, after 11 days of siege the Communist Party authorities relented, ordered an investigation into the villagers' complaints and sided with them.

Inside China what happened in Wukan was a source of inspiration. For some, the decision by the Communist Party to back down showed that the government was finally willing to reform in the face of unrest.

For others, it was confirmation of the widely held belief that while local officials are often venal, the party's top leaders still have the wisdom of Solomon - if you can attract their attention.

Even more surprising was the promise that villagers of Wukan would be allowed to elect their local council in a free and fair poll. In principle, villages have this right, but in practice, the result is always decided by the party hierarchy. Images of the Wukan ballot box circulated through the Chinese internet, often with a simple message attached: "I support."

Zhang Nong, a businessman in Beijing, wrote on his microblog: "Wukan is not Beijing or Shanghai. It is not a major city where we might say that those of culture are numerous and few are illiterate. It is a tiny fishing village.

"But the villagers have begun to vote, governing themselves. Does this not tell us that Chinese in other areas can do this too? I want to ask everyone why they can't."

In the end, on March 4, Lin Zuluan, the leader of the Wukan village rebellion, was elected as head of the village. But questions remain whether this is a harbinger of democracy or just clever crisis-management.

I was one of the first foreign reporters to reach Wukan in December, and recently I returned to the area. There is plenty of anger around, as villagers and farming communities bear the brunt of China's dash for industrial growth. In the village of Haimen, about two hours' drive from Wukan, between 30,000 and 80,000 villagers - depending on who you ask - smashed police cars and blocked a main road in pro-test at industrial pollution. Some said they had taken their cue from Wukan.

Another nearby village, Wanggang, rose up in January for a similar reason to Wukan: corrupt local officials had stolen from the village fund, they said.

But the uprisings in Haimen and Wanggang have had very different outcomes to Wukan. In Haimen, at least three people were still in detention three months after the unrest, according to villagers who said the authorities had threatened to imprison anyone who talked about what had happened.

Unlike in Wukan, the root of the complaint in Haimen is environmental. The government wants to build a second, giant, coal-fired power station outside the village. But residents believe the effluent from the first plant is poisoning their water and triggering unusually high rates of cancer.

"Life here cannot get any worse," said one fisherman. "There are no fish, just look at the water. Our catch has fallen by 80 per cent and we are left sitting here, waiting to die. Some of us are actually starving and that is no exaggeration."

Caixin, a Chinese magazine, said tests had shown that concentrations of lead, zinc and nickel, possibly from coal ash, exceeded national standards in the sea water.

Since the protest, plans for the second plant have been suspended, but not terminated. Construction workers are now employed at the first plant, adding two additional generators. Villagers do not believe the government will back down. The project is worth $900 million, and more than $30 million has already been spent.

"The difference between Haimen and Wukan is that Haimen does not have a strong protest leader, like Wukan," said Fu Ronghua, an NGO researcher. "Other villagers fail to stand firm and united for a long time, or when under pressure."

In the second protest village, Wanggang, a government team is investigating grievances, and the former party secretary has been suspended. "The government has not detained or threatened us, and we are not worried about a crackdown, we are only worried they will not solve our complaints," said Li Zhikai, 37, an activist. "Lots of villages have recently gone on protests to try to win more benefits for themselves. We want to keep our heads up and fight for our rights."

There are many reasons why the Wukan protest succeeded and other failed, said Zhang Jiancheng, 26, one of the village's leaders. "Our village is full of Chinese from Hong Kong who know how to use the media. We were really united and supported Lin Zuluan - the rebel turned party secretary - as our leader. And the rich people in the village were not involved, so there was no rich-poor divide. We had a clear target and we were all in it together."

Wukan has laid a blueprint for other villages to try to follow, including one for holding credible elections. But ultimately Wukan's legacy may be symbolic. Other villages have seen their protests fail for lack of unity and focus, and because villagers can often be placated by a combination of compensation and intimidation.

The fall of Bo Xilai

Charisma is in short supply among modern Chinese leaders, but Bo Xilai, the Communist Party boss of the inland megacity of Chongqing, has it in spades.

He courted publicity with an anti-corruption drive. To please the older generation, he made the 32 million people of the municipality of Chongqing join in sing-alongs of "red songs" from the Mao era.

To western observers, Bo seemed a dead cert for a place in the Politburo Standing Committee, the heart of Chinese power. But in a party which values consensus and preserving the status quo, he stood out.

On March 15, a one-line statement on the website of the People's Daily announced his dismissal and thus the end of his glittering career.

It is said that the chain of events which led to his dismissal began when he learned that his family was being investigated for corruption.

According to reports on the internet, he is said to have fired his police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, who then sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu.

No one can be sure what information about his boss Wang handed over to the US diplomats. That uncertainty alone would have been enough to destroy him.

Much has been made of Bo's leftist leanings, his revival of Mao-era songs and ideology. Since his toppling, the 'red' songs have largely stopped, and some Maoist websites have been blocked by the censors.

But Bo gave the impression of a man playing to the crowd, rather than a genuine ideologue. Perhaps it was this, his popularity, that worried his colleagues.

With such a shining star on the Politburo Standing Committee, perhaps China's next generation of leaders was concerned about a future challenge to its authority.

(Malcolm Moore is Beijing Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.)


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