People in the southern Chinese village of Shangpu were not expecting such a brutal response from their local government.

At 2am on Sunday, the village in Guangdong, China’s wealthiest province, was stormed by 2,000 security personnel sent in by the authorities who used teargas and beat even the elderly and women with truncheons. More than 40 people were still in hospital three days later.

Villagers had been protesting against a land grab by a businessman and an allegedly corrupt Shangpu village chief. During a stand-off last week, one hoisted banner had called for a “legal democratic election” to replace the chief. After Sunday’s violence, one villager said the local government was more brutal than the thugs allegedly hired by the businessman to attack the village last month.

Far away to the north this week, in Beijing’s august Great Hall of the People, Yu Zhengsheng, the newly elected chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), wasted no time in dousing optimism that China’s new leadership might be more receptive to political reform.

“We will not copy models in western political systems under any circumstances,” said Mr Yu. For good measure, he denounced “impetuous and extremist attitudes that lose contact with [China’s] national conditions.”

The attack on Shangpu might seem a mere footnote to the grand deliberations in Beijing, but the fact that the brutal crackdown happened in Guangdong, whose provincial government is often seen as the most liberal in China, is significant.

The inspiration for the Shangpu residents’ banner last week was Wukan, the village 100km away that rebelled against its local chief in late 2011 because of similar land grabs in collusion with local businessmen. Over 11 days in December that year, thousands of Wukan villagers staged protests, while the village was subjected to a siege by government security personnel.

At the time, Wang Yang, who was then Guangdong’s most powerful political official, sent a trusted lieutenant to broker a truce with the promise of free village elections. Images of the election booths built by the farmers electrified the Chinese blogosphere in February last year.

After the brutal attack on Shangpu on Sunday, it is clear that Wukan was an aberration. The election there now seems a tactical move by a shrewd government, confronted with the unshakeable unity and courage of several thousand villagers who had outwitted authorities by smuggling in several foreign journalists.

Hu Chunhua, Mr Wang’s successor since December as provincial party chief, sent no emissaries to Shangpu. A reporter for Southern Metropolis Daily, a leading local newspaper, confirmed last week that the journal had been ordered not to cover the Shangpu protests, so Mr Hu may not have been aware of them. The local county government did dismiss the Shangpu village chief, Li Baoyu, but gave no advance warning before the attack by security forces. A policeman who participated in the assault even brazenly posted a photograph of himself and a message on the internet: “Triumphant return, really exciting. Fired stun grenades and teargas.”

As for village elections, Chang Ping, the editor of iSun Affairs, a liberal Chinese magazine, says the issue needs to be seen in the context of a debate over the past couple of decades about whether democratising the country is best done by bottom-up reform. The reality has been mostly of village elections in which the ruling Communist party’s chosen candidates have duly triumphed, regardless of how unpopular they were.

“Bottom-up democracy has failed, but the central leadership do not want to start [democratising] from the top,” he said.

If there were any doubts about that, Jiang Li, China’s vice-minister of civil affairs, told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that direct elections had been conducted in 98 per cent of China’s villages, with 589,000 village committees formed as a result.

What Shangpu’s villagers want, like Wukan’s before them, is justice rather than democracy. Touchingly, they believe that leaders in Beijing are benevolent. Genuine elections simply seem to them the most logical step towards that end. Mr Yu of the CPPCC and his colleagues must find a way to respond with more than blustery rhetoric.

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