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China to seal Xi's power after months of pledges
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) March 3, 2013

China village defies officials to demand democracy
Shangpu, China (AFP) March 3, 2013 - Villagers in southern China were locked in a stand-off with authorities Sunday and were demanding democratic polls after a violent clash with thugs linked to a local official over a land transfer.

Just over a week ago, residents of Shangpu in Guangdong province fought with scores of attackers whom they claimed were sent by the village communist party chief and a business tycoon after they protested against a land deal.

Now police are blockading the settlement to outsiders while residents refuse to let officials inside, days before the annual meeting of the country's legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC).

The situation recalls a similar episode in Wukan, also in Guangdong and around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Shangpu, which made headlines worldwide 15 months ago.

AFP is believed to be the first Western media organisation to enter Shangpu since the stand-off began.

At the main entrance of the village of 3,000 people, 40 police and officials stood guard, barring outside vehicles from entering. Not far away, a cloth banner read: "Strongly request legal, democratic elections."

Shangpu's two-storey houses, typical of the region, and low-slung family-run workshops are surrounded by fields awaiting spring planting. But the main street is lined with the wrecks of cars damaged in the clash, with glass and metal littering the ground.

Residents said they should have the right to vote both for the leader who represents them and on whether to approve a controversial proposal to transform rice fields into an industrial zone.

"This should be decided by a vote by villagers," said one of the protest leaders, adding: "The village chief should represent our interests, but he doesn't."

Locals fear that once the NPC -- which starts Tuesday -- ends, authorities will move in with force.

China's parliament is widely seen as a "rubber stamp" whose hand-picked members do the bidding of the ruling party. Chinese leaders have repeatedly ruled out Western-style democracy for the country.

"For the purpose of maintaining stability, they (authorities) don't want to use forceful measures before the meetings," another villager said. "We are afraid of them coming back."

The unidentified attackers, some of whom wore orange hard hats and red armbands, drove into the village and turned on residents with shovels and other weapons.

Villagers drove the interlopers off by hitting them with bamboo poles and throwing bricks from a nearby construction site, according to first-hand accounts and video of the incident provided to AFP.

They said they then vented their fury on the attackers' cars, overturning and smashing as many as 29 vehicles.

Residents claimed some of the group had knives and a gun. A video showed a man firing a handgun into the air and villagers said he was a plainclothes police officer trying to intercede. At least eight villagers were injured.

In Wukan in late 2011, a protest by residents against a land grab by local officials accused of corruption escalated after one of their leaders died in police custody.

Villagers barricaded roads and faced off against security forces for 10 days, until authorities backed down and promised them rare concessions. Residents were later allowed to hold open village elections -- a first in Wukan.

The people of Shangpu had heard of Wukan indirectly, and had similar demands: free elections for their leader.

They claim the current village chief Li Baoyu, who is also the party head, was foisted on them by higher authorities.

Residents allege Li fraudulently obtained signatures to support the transfer of 33 hectares (82 acres) of farmland to the Wanfeng Investment Co, backed by businessman Wu Guicun, to be used for factories producing electrical cables.

Thousands of delegates from across China meet this week to seal a power transfer to new leaders who have raised expectations with a deluge of propaganda during their first months running the Communist Party.

Xi Jinping is due to replace Hu Jintao as China's president at the annual National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, a rubber-stamp parliament which meets on Tuesday. Li Keqiang will become premier, replacing Wen Jiabao.

It is the final step in a generational handover, four months after they took charge of the ruling party with pledges of cleaner government and greater devotion to people's livelihoods -- themes echoed across state-run media.

Xi's official appointment as president will end months of uncertainty following his appointment as Communist Party leader in November, said Jean Piere Cabestan, politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"There's a lull of four to five months which partly paralyses the country because the top leaders can't continue to operate the way they did before," he said.

Xi's position in the Communist Party is his real source of power, but his forthcoming government title will give him a more visible role, including on state trips abroad.

Nearly 3,000 delegates gather Tuesday for around 10 days to pass measures pre-approved by party leaders, including a reorganisation of government bureaucracy that will see major ministerial mergers.

The congress is expected to abolish several ministries including the much-maligned railways ministry to try to streamline the bureaucracy.

But such changes are unlikely to rein in the state-owned enterprises which are powerful opponents of market-oriented reforms, Cabestan said.

"Whether it means we'll have more market, fewer monopolies and vested interests remains to be seen... I don't think there will be any fundamental changes."

The NPC may address China's "reeducation through labour" system, which sees petty offenders sent to labour camps without trial. It has come under fire for its abuse by local governments as a way of quashing dissent.

But the degree of reform remains unclear.

Xi and other top leaders have also visited poverty-stricken villages in line with their goal of raising living standards and narrowing the gap in urban-rural inequality -- another public grievance.

To underscore a commitment to economic reforms seen as vital to long-term growth, Xi chose the southern city of Shenzhen -- where China launched its modernisation drive more than 30 years earlier -- for his first official tour as party leader.

But any desire for fundamental reforms is likely to be tempered by the need for consensus decisions and the overriding fear that drastic change could undo the party by disturbing deep-rooted patronage networks.

Xi reportedly warned officials during his southern trip against letting the party unravel like the Soviet Union, saying Gorbachev-style reforms could undermine Communist control.

Signalling a crackdown on graft, which incenses the public, Xi warned it could "kill the party" and threatened to target not only lowly "flies" but also top-ranking "tigers".

"They are trying to improve the system of governance to keep the party in power," said Scott Kennedy, Beijing-based director of the Indiana University research centre for Chinese Politics and Business.

The new premier, Li, will publicly address such concerns immediately after the NPC closes when he holds his only press conference of the year.

Leaders must start meeting the raised expectations, say analysts, or risk exacerbating mounting discontent about corruption, inequality, pollution and other woes.

Public frustration has flared several times since Li took charge over events ranging from media censorship and hazardous smog to China's backing of North Korea after its last nuclear test.

"Having high expectations gives them room and a honeymoon period in which they can do a lot," said Kennedy.

"If we get to next fall and some of the rhetoric and new style doesn't translate into really substantive changes, then I think that the negative reaction will be pretty severe."


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