One year after the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan staged landmark protests and threw out its officials, the newly elected committee has been hamstrung in its attempts to return to residents farmland sold to developers by a corrupt village chief.
In September last year, Wukan stunned officials with a highly organized and orderly anti-corruption protest by more than 3,000 villagers wielding colorful banners outside government offices.
Six months after a new committee was elected by local people to get their land back from corporations linked to the previous village secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, little real change has happened, however.
This week, around 200 protesters marched to the Wukan village Party committee offices in protest at the lack of movement on the return of their farmland, without which they say they can't make a living.
"This village committee has been in office for six months now, and things have dragged on for a year," said one of the protesters, identified only by his surname Zhuang.
"They have announced that several hundred mu of farmland has already been returned, but they still haven't divided it up and given it back to the villagers," he said. "We have no land or compensation."
"Before, they told us that they would get it back for us, and now they are saying it could take three to five years to get it back. We don't know what year or what month that will be," Zhuang added.
"Our aim [last year] was to topple the corrupt officials and get our land back as soon as possible," he said. "This can't be allowed to drag on indefinitely; we need a definite time-frame."
He said some people had already begun cultivating some of the land and were considering further protests.
Current village committee member Hong Ruichao, who was one of five villagers detained during the protests, and who now serves as deputy chairman of the village committee, said he could well understand the villagers' anger and frustration.
"After our investigations, we found 3,800 mu [250 hectares or 600 acres] of farmland that we could get back. But to do that, we have to undergo a lot of bureaucratic procedures, like submitting an application to the state bureau of land and resources," Hong said.
"So far, we have applied for 600 mu [40 hectares or 100 acres] of farmland to be returned [to Wukan's control], and this land will be divided up among the villagers very soon," he said.
"We are getting the land back piecemeal," he said. "It would be out of the question to get it all back in one big lump."
He said the land had been sold off in lots, which had then changed hands many times, making the committee's task much more complicated.
"People who were very close to the former village Party secretary are involved [in the process], including several officials from [nearby] Lufeng city, as well as the former Party secretary and the former chairman of the village committee," Hong said.
"All of them sold off land illegally to developers in a huge network of vested interests," he said. "Even if we asked them to give the land back, they wouldn't comply."
Probes and punishments
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.$30,000) and 86,000 yuan (U.S.$13,600) respectively, official media reported in April.
A provincial-level probe found that they were involved in "illegally transferring land use rights, embezzling collective properties, accepting bribes, and rigging village elections." Six other former village officials also received Party disciplinary action.
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," with more than 1.06 million yuan (U.S.$168,000) of illegal gains confiscated from the officials.
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.
A villager surnamed Chen said she thought the committee was moving too slowly to return land to local people.
"Now they are saying that they've only managed to get back half of our land," she said. "As for the few hundred mu, I don't know what's happening with that."
"All they did was have a meeting and stick a notice on the wall; we didn't hear anything from [deputy chairman] Hong."
"We feel as if they haven't done very much," she said. "They stick up a lot of notices but we don't know what's going on because we don't understand them."
Steep learning curve
A resident surnamed Zhang said the committee had so far received verbal assurances that 3,800 mu of farmland would be returned to the village.
"But they haven't handed it over to the village committee yet," he said. "The previous officials got the documents changed at the land and resources bureau, and those deeds haven't yet been transferred to the committee."
Zhang said the newly elected committee had had a steep learning curve since taking power at a landmark re-election in March following a violent standoff with armed police last December during which one activist died in police custody.
"Some of the younger ones don't have much experience," he said. "They will have to learn from everyone they can."
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.
The return of farmland to protesters in such cases is extremely rare.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.