China's top newspaper praised on Thursday the defusing of a 10-day standoff between villagers and officials, suggesting that the handling of the dispute would not necessarily harm the prospects of Wang Yang, Guangdong province's ambitious boss.
The protests in Wukan Village in Guangong, the province next to Hong Kong, ended on Wednesday after officials offered concessions over seized farmland and the death of a village leader, whose family suspects he was beaten in custody.
Villagers denounced local officials as corrupt and heartless throughout their months-long wrangle, which erupted in rioting in September, but they ended up welcoming provincial party officials as brokers who finally stepped in to compromise.
The People's Daily chided officials for letting the dispute get out of hand in the first place, but also praised the outcome as an example of how the government should handle an increasingly fractious and vocal society.
The initial error of the local government in the Wukan incident was its failure to heed the reasonable demands of the villagers, which escalated reasoned petitioning into excessive actions, the paper, which broadly reflects the views of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary.
But the newspaper praised a team of provincial officials that was instrumental in brokering a compromise -- words that could comfort Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong, who has exuded ambition for a place in China's next central leadership, which will be unveiled in late 2012.
The work team, led by one of Wang's deputies, created the basic conditions for stability and harmony in Wukan, said the paper, which cited Wang's instructions to face up to the entrenched grievances in the village.
This political courage to correct mistakes embodies the abiding mission of our party to take responsibility for the public's interests, it said.
China faces wrenching social shifts that will provoke growing public demands and conflicts, and Guangdong, with its rapid growth and huge population of rural migrants, is both a typical and a cautionary case, said the paper.
Residents of Wukan fended off police with barricades and held protests over the land dispute and death in police custody of the village organiser, Xue Jinbo, rejecting the government's position that an autopsy showed he died of natural causes.
But after talks with senior officials, village representatives told residents to pull down protest banners and go back to their normal lives -- provided the government kept to its word.
The officials agreed to release three men held over the land protest in September, when a government office was trashed, and to re-examine the cause of Xue's death, protest organisers said.
Protests in China have become relatively common over corruption, pollution, wages, and land grabs that local-level officials justify in the name of development.
Chinese experts put the number of mass incidents, as such protests are known, at about 90,000 a year in recent years.
The grip of Communist Party rule is not directly threatened by such bursts of unrest, but officials fear they could coalesce into broader, more organised challenges to their power.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley)