By James Pomfret
SHANGPU, China (Reuters) - An explosion of unrest in a south China village after a controversial sale of farmland, followed by a harsh police crackdown on villagers, has become a testing ground for a man considered a potential leader of the country.
The village, Shangpu, is in Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong. The province is China's most wealthy and most politically aware, and the Communist Party chief there is Hu Chunhua, a member of the powerful 25-person national politburo and a protege of former leader Hu Jintao.
Guangdong has been the site of many violent protests by villagers angered by the seizure of farmland by corrupt local officials. This land is often sold on to businessmen building industrial zones in the region, the engine of China's growth.
How Hu Chunhua, who has a reputation for being a reformer, has handled the protests in Shangpu so far offers some clues into his leadership and crisis management style. He was appointed to the job in Guangdong just three months ago, replacing the high profile and reformist Wang Yang, who won plaudits for defusing a similarly volatile land grab standoff in Wukan village in 2011.
Already this year, Hu has stepped in to mediate a newsroom strike over censorship at a prominent Chinese newspaper, but the dispute in Shangpu has required a different set of skills.
"We want him (Hu) to help us get peace in the village," said a middle-aged woman in Shangpu, who did not want to give her name. "Only the provincial government can help … the local government here is so black."
The trouble in Shangpu began in mid-January when villagers discovered 33 hectares of fields and rice paddies had been secretly sold off by its village chief to a businessman. Petitions to higher officials went nowhere.
In February, a clash erupted between villagers and what local officials have described as a "mafia-like" gang of thugs hired by the businessman, Wu Guicun, to force through the land deal. Residents chased away the men, smashed more than 20 vehicles and barricaded the area with makeshift guardposts.
Authorities responded within days, detaining the village chief Li Baoyu who allegedly brokered the land deal and issuing an arrest warrant for Wu. Meanwhile, a local court issued a statement on March 6 effectively nullifying the sale.
"The provincial government helped us," said Shangpu's deputy party secretary Li Kaiwen, who took over running of the village after his boss was detained.
"Things couldn't have been moved so quickly if the provincial government didn't issue instructions to the county and township officials to act," he told Reuters. Li added, however, that he never spoke to Hu directly.
But days later, local police surged into Shangpu to clear away the gutted vehicles, firing volleys of tear gas and beating up villagers with truncheons. Nearly 30 villagers, including elderly men and women in their 70s, were hospitalised.
"They hadn't even finished the negotiations and they just attacked us. This made the situation worse when it could have been resolved peacefully," said a local teacher in Shangpu who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.
WAS HU INVOLVED?
Hu's involvement, either in the first quick reaction to the unrest and or in the crackdown, isn't clear. He is currently in Beijing for the annual session of parliament, but analysts say how he handles this local crisis may be crucial to his career.
"These things to Hu Chunhua are even more important for him than other provincial leaders because of his potential," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University in Hong Kong. "They could affect his image and affect the central government's assessment of his performance."
Hu, 49, is part of the so-called "sixth generation" of potential national leaders born in the 1960s. This generation is likely to take power in 2022, after the decade-long rule of current leader Xi Jinping comes to an end.
Hu spent two decades in restive and remote Tibet, where he learned to speak Tibetan, rare for a Han Chinese official. While there, he came under the wing of Hu Jintao, the outgoing president.
Prior to Guangdong, Hu Chunhua was party boss of Inner Mongolia where he oversaw rapid economic growth and displayed what some have called a deft touch in handling protests by ethnic Mongols. Data on Hu's connections can be seen on Reuters' Connected China site, http://connectedchina.reuters.com/.
Despite having a reputation as more of a moderate and a reformer, Hu sent back Inner Mongolia's most notable Mongol dissident, Hada, to jail almost as soon as he completed a 15-year sentence for separatism in late 2010.
Cheng says what has happened in Shangpu is fairly typical for Chinese administrators who want to quickly defuse tension flashpoints, but also drive home the message that the party's writ remains supreme.
"It's a kind of carrot and stick policy. They want to negotiate, to settle the issue," he said. "But they'd also like to indicate that they're quite prepared to crack down."
Hours after the crackdown, Guangdong's Political and Law Committee reiterated on its Weibo microblog account that Shangpu's land contract had been scrapped, and the village chief detained along with more than 10 others.
Over the past week, village anger and defiance over the contradictory signals is being slowly replaced by a grudging acceptance that the worst may be over.
Seven gutted cars left on a village street as a symbol of continued resistance were cleared away on Tuesday without incident. Villagers, however, continue to place joss sticks at a makeshift roadside shrine seeking Buddha's blessing for justice, given nagging fears of fresh reprisals and land grabs in future.
"No senior leaders have come to speak with us directly, but hopefully they've now heard our voices," said Li Huqiang, whose bandaged head was struck by a tear gas bullet.
Li said despite Shangpu's tribulations, he retained faith in top party officials like Hu Chunhua to enshrine rural rights and justice by ensuring an irrefutable return of their farmland.
"Only they can get rid of corruption in our village. They're the only people with the power to help us."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)