From Protester to Village Head

An Interview with Lin Zuluan

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 refused to grant it. Tensions escalated in mid-December, when a leader of the protest movement, Xue Jinbo, died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. Protestors drove local officials and police out of the village; the provincial government, in turn, cut off supplies of food, water, and electricity and surrounded the town with security officers.

But in late December, in a highly unusual move, provincial authorities conceded that the protesters grievances were legitimate, threw out Wukan’s current leaders, and allowed its villagers to freely elect new leaders. While village elections are widespread in China, it’s rare for the Party not to exert pressure over the selection of candidates.

Lin Zuluan, a sixty-eight-year-old veteran of the People’s Liberation Army and independent businessman, who had been a leader of the protests, was elected Wukan’s new village chief.

The following are excerpts from interviews Hong Kong-based journalist Zhang Jieping conducted with Lin in January and February of 2012. —The Editors

How do you view your transformation from activist to Party Secretary?

If it were just a matter of self-interest, I would retire now. I would never have gotten involved in the first place had there not been clashes between the police and the villagers. I had no personal connection to the issues [that sparked the protests]. My thinking at the time was quite naive—all I knew was that some land had been sold by some corrupt officials. I never realized how serious the situation was; by the time I did, it was too late to quit. After talking with Zhu Mingguo [Deputy Party Secretary of Guangdong Provincial Government], I still could have handed my job over to the Provincial Special Working Team. But I worried that if I quit then, Wukan’s efforts over the preceding several months would suffer a serious setback and things would end up worse.

Why do you say that?

Even today it’s difficult to understand what happened in Wukan. The attitudes of the upper level governments in Donghai Township, Lufeng County, and Shanwei City are not entirely clear. But it’s understandable that the involvement of three levels of governments would create many obstacles for us. If this problem [of illegal land seizures] had been caused by the village officials, we would only have needed to report the matter to the Donghai Township government and that would have been the end of the matter. If the problem occurred at the township level, the municipal government of Lufeng County would have intervened and resolved it. But our petition was handed from the provincial level to the municipal level, from the municipal level to the county level, and finally back to the township. When this happened, I realized we would face more difficulties and resistance going forward. Take the case of Xue Jinbo [a leader of the protests who died in police custody], for example. I think the officials involved should have admitted what they did was wrong and apologized for it. Instead, they sought protection from higher-level officials. And not all of the officials at the provincial level are open-minded. On the provincial level, social stability is the top priority. But I think the goal of maintaining stability is a major obstacle to solving problems. These matters are deeply interrelated. I knew from the beginning that addressing these problems, which involve a wide range of people from different sectors and high positions, would not be an easy battle.

Can you tell us about your experience negotiating with the provincial working group on 21st December?

I went to negotiate with the provincial working group all by myself. I talked with Zhu Mingguo, the Deputy Party Secretary of Guangdong Provincial Government, his secretary, and Zheng Yanxiong, the Party Secretary of Shanwei Municipal Government. A coordinator named Zhang Shuijin was also there. He is a native of Wukan who used to work in finance in Lufeng County and since the protests began he had been working as a middleman between Wukan and higher levels of government. The four of us had a closed-door meeting.

Looking back, we failed to make two things clear. First, the Wukan people’s appeal was absolutely reasonable and legitimate, but at the time, the officials formed their attitudes around the extreme behavior of a few of the villagers. That was unfair. It’s important to make a distinction between the major and minor components of a given issue.

Zhang Jieping
Lin Zuluan stands outside a school in Wukan, February 1, 2012.
Mass movements and appeals by the masses shouldn’t be treated like insurrections in the military. Just because people made some mistakes doesn’t mean that the whole movement should be condemned and the government should make no concessions. For example, when [the authorities] began to release the people they’d detained, they released them on bail—as if they were awaiting trial. I think this was unfair. If I release you on bail, you have a criminal record and I can arrest you again whenever I want to. If someone has made a mistake, the government should forgive him; if someone commits a crime, then according to the law he should be dealt with firmly. There’s a difference.

[Second], at the time we had three requests: release the detainees, return the body (of Xue Jinbo), and, most important, clear the names of the village representatives. Failing to do so would cause the whole movement in Wukan to be labeled as illegal. They all agreed to these requests. As far as what the next step should be, I only suggested that they should improve the relationship between the government and the villagers. It would make everything easier. I said “even a couple in bed would sometimes quarrel with each other, what good does it do your work if you treat the people as your enemy?” The working group all agreed with me.

The word dangguan, to be an official, is a term we’ve poached from feudal society. But today, the outside world sees people in official positions as government employees. And if you’re a government employee, people trust you, they use a portion of their own income to support you, so that you can work on their behalf. You don’t own these people and you can’t just impose your will upon them. As we often say, “The greatness of the government is still the greatness of the people.” I have a problem with the term “grassroots ordinary folk.” We ought to say “the mighty ordinary folk.” If it weren’t for the ordinary folk, you wouldn’t be an official. A high and mighty government isn’t right. If it’s the people who are mighty, the government ought to be humble. This is the problem with the whole system.

You were labeled a “wanted man” by the government. In the eyes of outside observers, that label meant you were standing in opposition to the government. Now you are the Party Secretary, which is the representative of the Party. This is a situation seldom seen in our country’s history. In your opinion, how Wukan able to achieve this?

You shouldn’t view the situation from that perspective. The truth is, from the start, I never stood in opposition to the Party. I supported the people’s opinions and actions, which did not mean that I was against the Party. The Party should always stand alongside the people. They thought I stood in opposition. They were wrong. Their mistake was treating the public as the opposition. Now their perspective has changed.

Democratic elections are gradually leading Wukan toward real “grassroots self-governance” (jiceng zizhi). How do you understand “self-governance”? How should it be practiced?

The best feature of self-governance in rural areas is that all power resides with the village representative council. I would entrust the will of the villagers to the representative council, which can mediate the interests of the villagers and thus allow them to control their own destiny. Only with this systemic improvement can we eradicate corruption and the over-concentration of power. We should specify the system of the representation of villagers’ rights in detail. For example, important matters, including economic, political, and personnel decisions (including appointments and dismissals), as well as infrastructure projects, should be discussed by the village representative council. These decisions should be made by the council and implemented by the village committee. The Party branch should act as a mediator to facilitate communications. The most important issue for farmers is land. Land should be entrusted to and used by the villagers as determined by the village representative council, thus separating power and property (the Party and the administration). This way, there’s more than one voice of authority, the leaders don’t call all the shots.

How did you come up with the idea of a Village Representative Council?

I modeled it on the People’s Congresses. Right now the People’s Congresses are watered-down versions of what they ought to be. Chinese organizational culture is still quite feudal and often a single person has the sole power to decide how things go. That’s autocracy. A country is just like a work unit or a family. If power is too concentrated, it loses its vigor; if power is too diffuse, it has no cohesion, it can’t get big things done. I think [as a country] we ought to be more focused on disadvantaged groups, of which there are three categories. The first is comprised of people who are really decent (laoshi)—our society treats decent people as worthless. The second category includes those limited by their living conditions. The last one is made up of people who have suffered as a result of natural and manmade disasters. The corrective for these problems needs to come from the system, not from individuals.

So what is the role the Party plays when the representatives make decisions and the village committee implements them?

The Party should facilitate the communication of different levels of government and explain policy. I know villagers and governments will both seek the support of the Party.

Indeed. But what will you do if the Party’s interests conflict with the people’s interests?

I can’t be cheated by the higher-ups because I have evidence in my hands. But I do believe the higher-level authorities who support Wukan are sincere and in good faith. Even if the situation goes through more ups and downs, I believe that Wukan villagers will still attain their goals eventually. I believe that the greatest power is the power of the people. Everyone fears it. Those who do not represent the interests of the people always have to compromise in the end. Look at the conflicts that occurred all over the world this year [2011]. The people won in the end, even though their victory came at a very high price with much sacrifice. Ultimately the Party’s success should be measured by the support of the public. In most countries during an election, party leaders go to the public to ask for their votes. No public, no votes. [In China], the public now has different demands. It is easy to understand. When you have nothing to eat, you ask for food. Once you have food, you can start to want politics. Sometimes, people have too much politics in their life and hunger for economic development, which is what happened after the Cultural Revolution. Now it is the opposite: people have eaten and they are hungry for politics.

Wukan’s elections are going on now. What’s the biggest obstacle they face?

It will be investigating and screening the voters. Many Wukan villagers believe that by participating in the election, they’ll be able to get their land back, so many people who have left the village are now trying to come back to vote. The pool of voters is quite large. Originally Wukan comprised six “natural villages,” but now an additional village has been established. The original boundaries have changed. The high level of mobility of the local population also complicates voter registration; the village committees don’t have good records and the police stations’ household registration system is a mess.

How would you summarize the election of the Wukan Village Election Committee that was held on February 1st?

It was more successful than I had imagined it would be. I think we’ve overcome three prejudices: first, that democracy can’t work [in China]; second, that the people and journalists can’t be trusted; third, that the existing model [for governance] couldn’t be transcended. More than 6,000 villagers voted for the Wukan Village Election Committee today…But the future is not going to be so smooth. We have four higher-level governments above us. Some of the higher-level officials may smile to my face, but I suspect that in their hearts they’re cursing me. Not all of them are like this, but some of them don’t support our election. Our responsibility is heavy. The vehicle we are pulling is not a bicycle, not a motorcycle, or a car, but a very old and poor ox-wagon!

[Guangdong]’s Provincial Party Secretary Wang Yang said we should “dissect Wukan like a sparrow,”1 and other people also said we can learn from Wukan model. What do you think about these ideas?

What does dissecting a sparrow mean? Does it mean nailing the sparrow to a board and then conducting an autopsy? What about the cats who eat the sparrows? Should we dissect them too? What about the cat-catchers? Should we dissect them as well? Our village and our model can’t solve the problems of our entire society.

I had lunch with [a group of higher-level officials] today at noon. They said I was terrific. But I said: “Enough with the flattery. You ought to criticize me. Criticism is a weapon. And if you don’t use that weapon, people start to get bureaucratic. They get corrupt.” They laughed and said I was right. Wukan wound up the way it was not because of who was in charge of the village committee but because of the bureaucratism of the whole system. What I mean by bureaucratism is that whatever the leaders say goes. This is the biggest problem with our Party and our government. Without institutional mechanisms to check their power, individual leaders can issue orders at whim. The arrests on December 9th are a case in point. If the decision to make the arrests had been subject to a collective process instead of just a matter of the judgment of an individual, then I think the arrests and [Xue Jinbo’s] death could have been prevented. Even now [the responsible parties] are worrying about saving face. A government doesn’t care about saving face, individual leaders care about saving face. The officials involved won’t come clean because they’re scared of losing their positions, scared to being subject to the law.

This isn’t just Wukan’s problem; it’s the same story with officials across the country. Nowadays, people—ordinary people and officials—are crazy about money. They don’t distinguish between clean money and dirty money. It’s rather shameless. (Confronting such reality, my) personal thoughts about a better society can be nothing more than a dream. The whole society’s welfare is at stake. Only through the development of sound institutions and good law will our society be able to experience true progress. If we leave it all to the dreams of individual people, our society will make no progress at all.

  1. “Dissecting a sparrow” (jiepou maque) is a metaphor Mao Zedong used in reference to cadres investigating conditions in Chinese villages. Mao noted that sparrows had the same organs as other larger animals. His implication was that by closely studying one small part of China, one could draw conclusions about the country as a whole.
Politics, Society