Residents of the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan are outraged by what they consider to be extremely light sentences imposed on former village officials from the ruling Chinese Communist Party for corruption, saying public trust was at stake.
The residents drew international attention last year when they drove out their officials over illegal land grabs and elected a fresh team to administer the village amid a standoff with thousands of armed police.
Former Wukan Party secretary Xue Chang and former village committee chairman Chen Shunyi were expelled from the Party and ordered to hand over illegal gains of 189,200 yuan (U.S.$30,031) and 86,000 yuan respectively, the official Xinhua news agency quoted provincial-level officials as saying Thursday.
According to Zeng Qingrong, deputy head of the supervision department of Guangdong province, a number of former Wukan officials were found to have been involved in illegally transferring land use rights, embezzling collective properties, accepting bribes, and rigging village elections, Xinhua said.
Six other former village officials also received Party disciplinary action, the agency said, without elaborating.
Out of a total of 12 township and municipal officials who collaborated with the Wukan officials in discipline violations, two were handed over to "judicial authorities," it said, adding that more than 1.06 million yuan (U.S. $168,000) of illegal gains had been confiscated from the officials.
Punishments 'just for show'
But Wukan villagers said the punishments were too light, because the officials had disposed of almost all collectively owned village farmland during their 40-year stranglehold on power.
"Saying that they embezzled just a few hundred thousand is not likely to win people's trust [in the process]," said Wukan village committee member Zhuang Liehong, who took office after the March election.
"That hardly counts as corruption at all ... over a period of decades. They sold off several thousand mu (hundreds of hectares) of land," Zhuang said.
Zhuang said a recent probe carried out by Guandong provincial officials had turned up cases of land grabs, bribery, luxury cars for private use, and election-rigging among former members of the Wukan village committee and in the land and communications bureaus of nearby Donghai township and Lufeng city.
He said many Wukan residents were angered by the recent announcements, saying the punishments meted out to the officials concerned were "too light."
"They have already found out that certain township-level officials illegally bought social insurance policies for Xue Chang and eight other officials," Zhuang said.
"Now, they have just been kicked out of the Party and given a warning," he said. "The punishment is far too light."
"We have lost land that is worth ... billions of yuan at least," Zhuang said. "They have only given back 400,000 yuan to the village."
An Wukan resident who declined to be identified said he doubted that the provincial government was sincere in solving Wukan's problems.
"They only fined them a small amount; this is just for show," he said. "It's all fake."
A second elected Wukan committee member, Zhang Jiancheng, said villagers want the officials to face criminal charges for their actions, which prompted months of well-organized demonstrations and mass, peaceful protests outside government offices in Lufeng and Donghai, prompting the authorities to send in the security forces.
"It's the provincial government's responsibility to pursue them for this," Zhang said. "They should have to face criminal responsibility and sentencing for taking bribes."
"Otherwise, the people will be very angry."
Zhang said there was already growing dissatisfaction on the part of Wukan villagers with Zeng, who has still declined to give specific details regarding the return of village land.
"I heard some villagers saying that they are adamant that all of the lost land must be returned," he said. "Others are saying that they are going to protest outside the provincial government headquarters because they are unhappy with the provincial government working group's responses."
However, Wukan was quiet this week, with most villagers waiting to see if promises from deputy provincial Party secretary Zhu Mingguo to return a portion of land to the village by May 1 would be kept.
Hubei-based grass-roots election expert and former independent People's Congress deputy Yao Lifa said the fact that Wukan has been allowed to hold direct elections doesn't mean that its problems were over.
"We can't take the simplistic view that there will now be political reforms in Guangdong province just because there have been these recent developments in Wukan," Yao said.
"That would be too optimistic [because] the overall direction that Guangdong is going in isn't driven by popular opinion."
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to rural communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced the state-run farms and communes of the Mao era.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by An Pei for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.