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‘Wukan,’ Once a Byword For Chinese Democracy, Now Censored

Protests Against Land Grabs That Led to Electoral Experiment Are Pertinent Five Years Later

A fishing village in southern Guangdong province, once a standard-bearer for small-time democracy in China, has now become a political disaster—and the most-censored term on Chinese social media.

In September 2011, amid protests over land sales in the village of Wukan, residents closed off roads leading in to the village and expelled local governing officials. Police laid siege as residents stockpiled food. Villagers conspicuously proclaimed their loyalty to the ruling Communist Party during the protest, indicating that they were not rebelling against it, but asking for its intervention. In what is sometimes called the “Wukan model” for handling dissent, the dispute was eventually resolved when the provincial Party Secretary negotiated with the villagers, granting them the right to elect a local leader.

Wukan Daily Life

By Sim Chi Yin
  • Official notices are plastered on a Wukan temple wall in the days leading up to the first round of village elections. Three rounds of elections would select a new village committee after residents drove out the previous committee amid claims of corruption.
    Official notices are plastered on a Wukan temple wall in the days leading up to the first round of village elections. Three rounds of elections would select a new village committee after residents drove out the previous committee amid claims of corruption.
  • At the heart of Wukan's mass protests were allegations that large plots of village land had been sold off to developers by local officials for personal gain. As Wukan is a sea-side village, part of the land that was sold is sea-front property, some of it too salinated for farming.
    At the heart of Wukan's mass protests were allegations that large plots of village land had been sold off to developers by local officials for personal gain. As Wukan is a sea-side village, part of the land that was sold is sea-front property, some of it too salinated for farming.
  • Wukan is dotted with temples that feature a mix of Taoism, Buddhism, and folk religion. There is a small percentage of Catholics in the village, but most villagers observe a range of folk festivals and pray on important days in the lunar calendar.
    Wukan is dotted with temples that feature a mix of Taoism, Buddhism, and folk religion. There is a small percentage of Catholics in the village, but most villagers observe a range of folk festivals and pray on important days in the lunar calendar.
  • Often described as a relatively wealthy coastal Chinese village, Wukan is nevertheless divided by a visible income gap. Plush new villas stand alongside single-room homes that are crumbling and without running water. Huang Binbin, 6, pulls back on the string of a toy bow and arrow with his brother Pengpeng, 10, nearby. They live in a nine-square-meter home, at left, which they share with their parents and sister.
    Often described as a relatively wealthy coastal Chinese village, Wukan is nevertheless divided by a visible income gap. Plush new villas stand alongside single-room homes that are crumbling and without running water. Huang Binbin, 6, pulls back on the string of a toy bow and arrow with his brother Pengpeng, 10, nearby. They live in a nine-square-meter home, at left, which they share with their parents and sister.
  • A fisherman prepares his nets for the next day's catch in front of an altar constructed for Xue Jinbo, a Wukan villager who had led protests and died in police custody in December 2011.
    A fisherman prepares his nets for the next day's catch in front of an altar constructed for Xue Jinbo, a Wukan villager who had led protests and died in police custody in December 2011.
  • Wukan's newly elected village chief, Lin Zuluan, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. The long-term land dispute that led Wukan villagers to launch sustained protests and chase out its previous village committee captured the world's attention.
    Wukan's newly elected village chief, Lin Zuluan, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. The long-term land dispute that led Wukan villagers to launch sustained protests and chase out its previous village committee captured the world's attention.
  • A Wukan villager expresses his exasperation at paramilitary police who turned a foreign journalist away from the polling center during the first of three rounds of village elections.
    A Wukan villager expresses his exasperation at paramilitary police who turned a foreign journalist away from the polling center during the first of three rounds of village elections.
  • Paramilitary police stand guard as ballots are counted.
    Paramilitary police stand guard as ballots are counted.
  • Wukan villagers make a final count of ballots late into the night after the first round of elections.
    Wukan villagers make a final count of ballots late into the night after the first round of elections.
  • Village party chief Lin Zuluan announces the end of voting and unused ballot papers are destroyed in a bonfire (seen at center).
    Village party chief Lin Zuluan announces the end of voting and unused ballot papers are destroyed in a bonfire (seen at center).
  • Evening in Wukan
    Evening in Wukan

The sudden detention of that democratically-elected leader, Wukan Communist Party Secretary Lin Zulian, has mobilized Wukan residents to protest once again, and has kicked China’s massive online censorship apparatus into high gear. Some time in mid-June, Lin posted a letter to his account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, announcing his intent to organize a mass demonstration protesting further illegal land sales, a practice endemic in China in which local governments seize land, often held by small farmers, for lucrative resale to commercial ventures.

But days later, on Friday, June 17, dozens of police cars arrived in Wukan; Lin was detained early the next morning. Law enforcement authorities in Lufeng City, which oversees Wukan, released a statement that Lin was suspected of taking bribes. Local residents claim there’s been another land grab, and many felt the allegations were a cover for silencing Lin. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, 400 police faced off with villagers for several hours on June 18. On June 19, thousands of residents marched to the slogan “Return our secretary,” according to one resident’s interview with The New York Times.

Earthbound China

04.18.12

What Wukan Means

Ou Ning
It began, in the early stages, as a secret mobilization. Then came the protests, marches of ever-larger numbers, direct confrontation, occupations, blockades, anarchy, media exposure, a case of accidental death, the involvement of higher levels of...

As often happens during protests, Wukan residents soon took to the Internet. They posted videos and pictures of the village surrounded by police, and shared images of recovered surveillance video of Lin being taken away in the middle of the night. But in what has become a common tale pitting netizens against China’s increasingly controlled web, many posts were quickly taken down in a swift flurry of censorship. On June 19 and 20, “Wukan” and “villagers” were the most censored terms on Weibo, according to censorship tracker Weiboscope, operated by the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. Lin’s account is now deactivated. After the extensive elimination of Wukan-related posts and comments, only a few news stories from certain media and updates from government accounts are still available on Weibo. In an open letter published online by the local police department, villagers have been asked to cooperate with Lin’s investigation and to avoid “extreme actions.”

Secretary Lin is the one we voted for, one person, one vote. Our Wukan needs Secretary Lin.

Only a fraction of the hundreds of comments that poured in on social media remain, but what’s left evinces support of Lin and the villagers. A user who claimed to be from Wukan wrote, “Secretary Lin is the one we voted for, one person, one vote. Our Wukan needs Secretary Lin.” The user also disavowed the strong police showing to arrest a “more than 70-year-old man.” Another added, “Everyone in Lufeng knows about this. He is a white-haired old man fighting for his people. He’s been laden with trumped-up charges.” One Weibo user asked if the act was “revenge” for Lin’s previous activism.

Earthbound China

05.11.12

From Protester to Village Head

Zhang Jieping
In September 2011, residents of the village of Wukan in Guangdong province began protesting the illegal seizure and sale of their land by local Party cadres. The protestors demanded fair compensation for the land that had been taken, but officials...

While journalists continue to have access to Wukan, netizens widely reposted a video clip of a Wukan government official cursing and threatening Hong Kong reporters on June 20. The official, identified as the deputy mayor of Donghai county, which administers Wukan, barked at reporters, brandished an umbrella threateningly, and used it to shield himself from cameras as if it were a truncheon. One reporter shouted back, “You shouldn’t curse… You’re a government official.” In a subsequent shot, Zhang Shuijin, appointed by the county as Lin’s replacement shortly after his arrest, tried to calm down the villagers but was called out by an unidentified woman in a flowered shirt for “selling out the village.”

Local government land grabs are endemic across China, leading to thousands of protests each year as landholders try to obtain fair compensation. Land sales are a major source of income for many local governments, which sometimes aim to boost development through expensive construction or infrastructure projects. In the process of clearing land for such projects, local officials often compensate farmers with only a fraction of the seized land’s value. A 2011 survey of 1,791 farmers conducted across 17 provinces revealed that farmers whose land has been taken received an average of $17,850 per acre in compensation—whereas authorities pocketed an average of about $740,000 per acre after resale, largely for commercial ventures. It’s unsurprising, then, that Wukan protesters seem to have struck a collective nerve across the country.

The redux in Wukan highlights an irony central to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012. Xi’s signature policy has been a sweeping campaign against corruption, as well as harsh crackdowns on dissenting speech. Yet sometimes speech is necessary to highlight corruption, as it was in Wukan several years ago. That’s a reality that prevailing authorities don’t seem to accept. As a June 20 editorial in Party-owned newspaper Global Times stated in response to the Wukan protests, “If the drastic actions of the Wukan villagers are adopted by other people involved in disputes, China will see mess and disturbance at a grass-roots level.” In Xi’s China, the negotiation that mollified Wukan residents in 2011 may no longer be possible. Yet the corruption there continues.