Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have promised the rebel village of Wukan to return at least some of its lost farmland on May 1, amid calls for other local governments to learn from the way the dispute was handled.
Vice provincial Party secretary Zhu Mingguo made the announcement during a trip to Wukan, which recently elected the leaders of last year's protest to the village committee of the ruling Communist Party as part of a deal that ended a violent standoff with armed police in December.
"Zhu Mingguo, who heads the provincial Party committee working group [on Wukan], mentioned the date during recent talks in the village," Wukan Party committee member Zhuang Liehong said on Thursday.
"The working group is putting all its effort into retrieving the lost land, and we have already given them all the documentation relating to it," Zhuang said.
"Zhu Mingguo promised us that they would do their best."
Zhu had told the committee that "a portion" of the lost farmland would be returned to the village—which grabbed international media attention late last year with its feisty defense of its territory against thousands of armed police and its highly organized protests and rallies—by May 1, he added.
Villagers present at the meeting had applauded the announcement, taking it to be evidence of sincerity among provincial officials, Zhuang said.
He said members of the newly elected committee, none of whom have previous government experience, had their work cut out for them since being elected last month.
"It has been tough," he said. "The land was sold off by people who were previously in charge here, so it's a question of what evidence to show and what tactics to employ to get it back from the people [who bought it]."
He said the committee had received scant help from other officials. "Everything depends on us here at the village committee," he said.
"We can't get the land back, so we'll have to see what the [provincial] government is made of."
A second village committee member, Zhang Jiancheng, said Zhu hadn't been specific about the amount of land that would be returned, and that he interpreted the promise more as a form of public support for the new committee.
But he said Wukan would not give up its quest to have its land returned.
"I hope that [Zhu] and the working group really will help us out with the return of our land," Zhang said. "Of course, we're not going to get it all back overnight, but at the very least we know that some of it will be returned to us."
He said any land returned to the collective ownership of the village would be used to ensure the livelihood of its residents.
"Right now, the village committee hasn't a cent to its name, because all the village land was sold off by corrupt officials," Zhang said.
"We are having to borrow from funds gathered by the villagers themselves ... We are starting all over again with nothing."
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.
In Wukan, however, villagers prevented police from entering the village and putting pressure on villagers with beatings and detentions, while at the same time negotiating with provincial officials who had no wish to see bloodshed ahead of a national-level leadership transition later this year.
In another indication of support for Wukan among Guangdong's political elite, a Party-backed magazine on Monday praised the way the Wukan dispute was handled.
"In a government that puts stability above all else, many officials think only of cracking down on public unrest, which only causes more problems," according to a commentary published in the Guangdong-based magazine Tongzhou Gongjin.
"Too many Chinese officials think only of keeping their jobs and not of maintaining social justice or the welfare of the people," said the editorial, which was signed by political commentator Ma Licheng.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.