Land prices in China have risen steadily since the economic reforms of the late 70s and 80s, but rural land laws date back to the PRC’s beginnings. Collective ownership allows local governments to seize land from the farmers who toil upon it; the sale of such land is estimated to have accounted for as much as 74% of local government income in 2010. While government land grabs have long been a major cause of protest in rural China, local unrest in a southern Chinese village in 2011 sparked a movement that captured global attention and resulted in an unprecedented democratic experiment.
In September of 2011, local officials in the Guangdong village of Wukan sold land to real estate developers without providing villagers proper compensation. Villagers responded by protesting corruption in the local village committee. When a protest leader died in detention that December, anger boiled over, eventually leading to local elections free from the Party interference that has characterized the selection of village committees since their introduction.
Online support and open communication with the foreign and domestic press were major factors in the protests’ initial success. In May last year, Hong Kong-based journalist and editor Zhang Jieping profiled a young Wukan villager named Zhang Jianxing [Chinese], whose media-savvy kept the small village connected to the rest of China and the world outside. Translated below, the story was originally published as a magazine feature in People (人物) in May of 2013, and reposted by Co-China (我在中国论坛) this April. As told from Zhang’s point of view, the story reflects the shift from hope to disillusionment in Wukan over the past two years. In the end, little seems to have changed.
Zhang Jianxing was always a recognizable figure walking through the village. He wore his hair combed from back to front, hair gel fixing each strand into place. He wore a brown faux-leather jacket, oversized black pants, his clothing covered with pockets that overflowed with all kinds of equipment: four cell phones, a walkie-talkie, miniature hidden cameras, a recording pen, chargers… On his leg he concealed a small knife. He always carried a camera or camcorder in his hands.
Every month, he would spend thousands of yuan updating his equipment, ensuring everything remained connected to the outside world—any Internet-enabled equipment had to remain online. At any given time, two or more of his cell phone numbers were freely given to reporters from all over the world, one cell phone was used to communicate with his everyday social circle, and yet another was a secret number that only a few people knew, used for emergency or secret calls. The secret number changed frequently. He constantly switched out new handsets as needed.
Add to that six QQ accounts, eight Weibo accounts, and usernames for all types of Internet forums… Zhang Jianxing was like a giant standing mobile communications terminal, receiving and sending messages, videos, audio, text, weibo—incessantly. Through him, a steady stream of information from Wukan Village was being broadcast to the outside world. Outside reports reached their way back in through him as well. Wukan Village residents jokingly called him the “Wukan Daily Newspaper reporter,” “the one-man Wukan TV Station,” or even “Head of the Wukan Propaganda Department.”
One year ago, the 20-year-old young man stepped from Wukan into the spotlight of the international media.
In September 2011, a land-rights movement sprung up in Wukan. In response to old village officials selling tens of thousands of mu [Chinese acres] for their private profit, the people of the village formed organized group protests that lasted over three months. The people and village officials were locked in intense standoff, and a village representative died. Ultimately, higher authorities intervened, forcing the local government to compromise. The old village officials were investigated, and the people held the first democratic election in village history.
Over the course of this amazing movement, the active online personality of Zhang Jianxing acted as a bridge between most reporters covering the story and the people of Wukan. Because of his awareness and knowledge of how to use new technology, new media and social networking to broadcast information and organize movements, the media instantly regarded him as Wukan’s model representative of a new generation of resistance. With each television and newspaper report, Zhang Jianxing further confirmed himself in this role. Constantly ringing cell phones kept multiplying in his pockets.
One year later, despite slow progress towards the recovery of lost land, things generally settled down in Wukan. The new, democratically elected village committee settled in to normal operations, officials from higher office are no longer viewed as enemies when they visit, and the tense standoffs are no more. The youths in the street returned to work in the Pearl River Delta. Ever since the movement reached its climax—the democratic election—the media has since scattered.
But Zhang Jianxing never found another job. He still appears to be very busy. He bought a microphone, a better camera and more advanced hidden recording equipment. He added an iPad, the newest iPhone, a Xiaomi cellphone, and a new computer to his arsenal. He also founded private weibo and WeChat groups and invited all the reporters and students that had once visited Wukan to join. He still makes sure he’s carrying the most advanced equipment available, and his connection to the outside world remains as fast as ever. He remains prepared for Wukan to “rise up again” at any moment—even though Wukan is no longer a focus of public debate. There isn’t much “newsworthy” going on to attract reporters’ attention anymore.
Two days before Premier [Li Keqiang’s] news conference at the 2013 Two Sessions, Zhang Jianxing posed the following question to the members of his WeChat group: “Are there any reporters who could ask the new premier what he thinks of Wukan?” He even provided a “press release”: “The government has yet to give its blessings to the results of the Wukan elections. Problems over land claims continue to this day; there are only a relatively small amount of resolved cases. As a result, Wukan’s democracy is struggling.” None of the 32 members of the group responded. One immediately left the group.
A restless mob crowded around the doorway to the village committee building. Someone suddenly yelled, “Everyone! Everybody enter!” For a brief moment the crowd fell silent, no one moved. The young man who had yelled was the first to move forward, brandishing a video camera on his shoulders.
He took a few steps forward, turned and waved before yelling again, “Everyone!!”
The crowd suddenly burst into motion, flooding the small building and surrounding a county leader who couldn’t maintain his balance in the rush.
Things were most intense in March 2013. As he recalled the scene, Zhang Jianxing remembers it like it was yesterday. Speaking with his whole body, even his enormous sunglasses couldn’t hide the proud look in his eyes.
“With just one wave, whoosh—” he described the sound of the crowd surging behind him many times.
“It felt amazing,” he said, before pausing for a few long seconds.
Now, Zhang Jianxing wishes to do nothing besides recall the story of the Wukan resistance. This young man believes that the knowledge gained, excitement felt, and sense of accomplishment over those few months may very well have changed his life forever.
Seventeen-year-old Zhang Jianxing attended secondary school in the village. Like all kids growing up in the county seat, he loved [the movie] Young and Dangerous. His hair, dyed blonde and hanging over his child-like face, resembled a character from “The King of Fighters”—he even called himself “Yagami.” He was the best student out of his clique of rebellious teenagers, and he was especially gifted in painting. He represented his school in competitions big and small. “The walls of our house were covered with all sorts of awards,” he said.
But in 2008, over winter break during his first year of high school, he suddenly dropped out in a fit of anger. His reason was startling: his old cell phone broke and he wanted to buy a new one—with a “high pixel count and good sound quality, one that could log into QQ.” “My dad refused. He and I fought like hell. I just refused to study.”
Zhang Jianxing’s father was a carpenter, and his mother sold ingredients for traditional medicine at the market. Including Jianxing, they raised a total of five children. They were a family of very ordinary means, but Zhang Jianxing didn’t feel his demands were excessive. To this day, he remains deeply aggrieved by one fateful transgression. During the early days of his angry period, Zhang Jianxing’s teachers and principal didn’t want to lose him. They tried hard to keep him in school, promising he could attend school tuition-free. But by this time Zhang Jianxing’s father had already given tuition money to his son. Zhang Jianxing told his father the whole story—the school had waived his tuition. But, he asked, “Could we use a portion of this money—1 thousand yuan—and then let me put 200 yuan of my own on top of that, and buy me a new phone?” His father answered simply, “No.”
“He didn’t know that school already decided to waive my tuition. I wasn’t tricking him, and I didn’t take the money and lie and say that I used it to sign up for school, only to go buy a cellphone myself. I was telling him the complete truth. And this was the result.” Zhang Jianxing feels he was “too honest,” a mistake for which he received no reward in return.
He quit school completely, never to return. From that point his relationship with his parents became quite tense, and it remains in disrepair to this day.
After dropping out, he spent his days in the house, using his big brother’s computer to get online, watch movies, watch television shows and play games. “I didn’t go to sleep until around 2 or 3AM, and then I got up around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The rest of the day I spent online.” He admits, those were “a very depraved few months.” This continued until April 2009, when he came across a flyer making its rounds through the village. On the night of April 3, a flyer titled “A Letter to the People of Wukan—We Will Not Not Die Village Slaves,” was posted all over every road and alleyway in Wukan. The flyer disclosed that for years public land in Wukan was corruptly being sold for personal profit, and it called for all the people of the village to act to defend their land and demand those responsible be held accountable.
The flyer was signed by a mysterious name: “Patriot No. 1.” The flyer also displayed a QQ account number.
Zhang Jianxing immediately added the number to his contacts and joined the “Patriot No. 1” QQ forum. Here, calling himself “Patriot No. 2,” Zhang Jianxing discussed the issues outlined in the flyer with others. He came across someone called “Patriot No. 5.” No. 2 and No. 5 quickly became the two most active commenters in the forum. “Our language and ideas were the same, so we quickly got to know one another.”
“Patriot No. 5,” was a fellow Wukan resident named Zhuang Liehong. He was born in 1983, making him 8 years Zhang Jianxing’s senior. He would become Zhang Jianxing’s best friend. Zhuang Liehong worked in Shunde, where he ran a small business for many years. He explained to Zhang Jianxing that in Shunde’s Sanzhou Village, young people of about his age earned dividends worth hundreds of thousands of yuan from the land on which they worked. “Their land is rented out as a collective, and they share income as a collective, getting paid out in dividends. Why do other people have this but we Wukan folks don’t? The people in this village have worked hard their entire lives, but we still live in such shoddy homes. Well, I’m going to stand up for the people of this village. Our rightful benefits have been infringed upon,” said Zhuang Liehong.
More and more young Wukan residents began taking part in the “Patriot No. 1” QQ forum. The “Wukan Hot-Blooded Youth League,” an offshoot QQ group formed. Once a group reached capacity, another one would open. In just a few months, a handful of subgroups were all approaching 1,000 members.
In these groups, people discussed the problem of land use corruption. They shared evidence of wrongdoing from many different sources, including internal contracts, government approval documents, farmland occupancy lists, and so on. Young people from other villages in the Pearl River Delta region shared their own experiences. Two documents were permanently posted to the top of each forum: “International Bill of Human Rights,” and the “United Nations Convention Against Corruption.”
Zhang Jianxing spent virtually every day in the forums. Because of his close relationship with “Patriot No. 1,” Zhang Jianxing was named an administrator in the main forum. In addition to his administrator account, he opened 5 other QQ accounts and assigned each with different names, ages, genders and friends lists. All were members of the “Hot-Blooded Youth League” forum. The ages he listed for his various accounts spanned from 14 to 39.
n he wanted to start or join a conversation, Zhang Jianxing simultaneously signed in with multiple accounts. With each ID he used different wording, tone, punctuation, etc. to simulate people with different roles who would discuss topics on the forum together. Occasionally, he even manufactured entire debates, setting one QQ account against another, then having another account join in, another one coming in to arbitrate, etc. Through this, he was able to lead the discussion in the direction he considered correct.
Zhuang Liehong often helped him warm up the debate. Liehong’s position always stayed absolutely clear: strike down corrupt officials, take back the land!
Zhuang Liehong knew that many times Zhang Jianxing would be “playing tricks” in the forums. “He thought no one could tell, but I knew which account was really him. I just decided not to say anything,” Zhuang Liehong explained with a smile. Zhuang Liehong cherished this little brother, who he found to be clever, passionate and brave.
Zhang Jianxing was completely invested in his “Hot-Blooded Youth League” project.
Patriots No. 2 and No. 5
Through their online group discussions, Zhang Jianxing and his friends realized that the old Village Committee had held their posts for 40 consecutive years, cultivating power over that long period of time. This is what allowed the selling of collectively owned land for private profit, an issue no one dared speak out against for years. It was clear that the first step to reclaiming the land would be to throw out the village head and elect a representative that the people of the village trusted. On June 21, 2009, Zhuang Liehong called on the “Hot-Blooded Youth League” to travel together to Guangzhou and petition the provincial government seat. Their two demands: “fair, transparent, grass-roots-level elections” and reclaiming the land that belonged to the people of the village.
These remained their demands throughout two ensuing years of petitioning, activism and protest. Different from other village rights movements, their demands were clearly political in nature, and this proved to be one of the important reasons why the Wukan Incident would eventually attract worldwide attention.
Their first petitioning trip was a failure. A village cadre got advance notice of their plans through the QQ group, and people began cancelling their trip, one after another.
Out of the over 100 people who originally signed up for the trip, only five made it to Guangzhou. Once they got there, they cast their petitioning documents, which bore Zhuang Liehong’s signature, to the provincial government. It was like dropping a stone into the sea.
“After the petition failed, I cried long and hard inside my house,” Zhang Jianxing said. This was the first time his idealism was met with failure. Taking 650 yuan, he left home and went to find Zhuang Liehong who was running a small tobacco and alcohol shop in Shunde.
This was the first time Patriot Nos. 2 and 5 worked so closely together. They began planning the next petitioning trip and started collecting evidence from the QQ group.
Zhuang Liehong was “a man of character with the courage to act,” and this greatly attracted Zhang Jianxing’s interest. After the failed petition, some village cadres went to the village to investigate the so-called “Hot-Blooded Youth League.” When Zhuang Liehong heard about this, he immediately posted the following with his real name online: “If you have the guts, come find me in Shunde. My name is Zhuang Liehong!” Zhang Jianxing said, “He was really courageous, fearing nothing in heaven or earth, willing to take the lead in denouncing the officials. I’ll be the first one to sign my name to a petition. I’ll stand at the very front of the demonstrations.” At the same time, Zhang Jianxing began learning how to buy and sell goods. The two ate together, lived together, talked about their aspirations and about their hometown. They both loved to sing. They loved to listen to Alan Tam, Beyond, Wang Feng, Michael Jackson; they loved both foreign and Chinese music.
The two wrote a song together, titled “Wukan Passion.” Zhang Jianxing wrote the lyrics to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.” Zhuang Liehong used the small microphone built into his computer to record the vocals. Using software called Corel Video Studio they put their song to a slideshow of pictures of Wukan to create a music video, which they uploaded to online video sites. The lyrics feature a strong “Internationale” style: “Our homeland, lost the sun… We took an oath under the hammer and sickle, do you still remember, flashing notes of shame, playing the song of harmony, ruling under the gray gloom, a kingdom of the blind… no relying on an immortal emperor, we only rely on ourselves, no relying on an immortal emperor, that’s where anti-corruption lives…”
The vocals for the original song get quite high. Listening to Zhuang Liehong struggle to hit the high notes, you can clearly hear where his abilities fall short. But even as he greatly misses the mark, he continues full steam ahead, with a kind of reckless abandon.
Zhuang Liehong didn’t receive much schooling. He began helping his family with work before he finished primary school. As he said to Zhang Jianxing, “If the hardship that society gives you makes sense, then it’s like exercise. If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s like getting honed.” Zhang Jianxing remembers this sentence to this day. “Whenever I encounter some kind of hardship, I always think of those words. It’s helped me get through a lot.”
In December 2009, Zhang Jianxing began working as a salesman in a cell phone shop. He was an outstanding salesman. In just a little over a year, he was independently managing a 260 square-meter shop with over 20 employees, making him the company’s youngest store manager.
During this time, the Hot-Blooded Youth League conducted 11 petition trips to 14 different government departments. After the last trip, on May 14, 2011, once again failed to prompt any response, they finally realized that this method was a dead end.
“Wukan Propaganda Department Chief”
Zhuang Liehong and some other Hot-Blooded Youth League members returned to Wukan Village to focus on the movement. They now understood that they wouldn’t get the government’s attention unless a larger-scale incident were to arise. On September 21, 2011, nearly 5,000 Wukan Village residents surrounded the gates of the Lufeng City Government building to “collectively petition.” Wukan was finally boiling over.
On the second day of the 9/21 incident, violence erupted between police and Wukan residents. Dozens of villagers were beaten, the situation was very tense. Zhang Jianxing immediately resigned from his job at the cell phone shop—he “couldn’t remain seated.”
At this time a respected local elder, Lin Zuluan, was invited in from the rural mountainous area to preside over village proceedings. Under his direction, and based on the 47 Wukan Village family clans, 13 people were selected to serve as a provisional council, which organized pro-rights activities and would represent the villagers in negotiations with the government.
Under the direction of Lin Zuluan, the council called the villagers together to discuss the situation and negotiate with the government. The “Hot-Blooded Youth League” was responsible for recording the proceedings, broadcasting information and communicating with the media, in and also for maintaining general security. After presiding over these meetings, Lin Zuluan began to receive terrifying phone calls, and he sometimes found notes cursing him stuck to the door of his home. In order to ensure Old Lin’s safety, Zhang Jianxing and Zhuang Liehong moved directly into the Lin house.
With funds donated by the people of the village, they went to Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei [shopping area] and spent 8,000 yuan on a professional video camera, and 3,000 yuan on 20 walkie-talkies. They also bought monitoring equipment and security nets. They installed nine video monitors on the entrances of the doors and windows of the Lin’s three-story home. Then, they set up a “provisional command post” on the second floor of the building.
Walking into the room, you would face four computer screens lined up in a row. One screen displays 24-hour feeds from the nine video monitors. The other three show computers processing various information, using Weibo, QQ and other social media platforms to continuously update the outside world with information, pictures and videos from Wukan. The computers also burned CDs to be given to visiting reporters. The computer’s desktops displayed homemade “Wukan Hot-Blooded Youth League” logos. About 12 core youngsters worked here in shifts, their schedules managed by Zhang Jianxing.
By then, they had long abandoned the unsecure QQ group, switching to walkie-talkies to communicate. They established three walkie-talkie channels—one for reaching village representatives and council members to share information with the people of the village and to coordinate activities; one to contact Youth League members and maintain security; and one personal line for Zhang Jianxing to contact Lin Zuluan, so he could relay important decisions from Old Lin.
Zhang Jianxing posted his cell phone number on a number of public Internet forums, and reporters from far and wide began contacting him, one after another.
Zhang Jianxing broadcast what was happening in Wukan to the outside world, and also collected reports and opinions from the outside about Wukan. He collected these reports for Old Lin to review, in order to help him make decisions. “Before 9/21 I didn’t know Old Lin. Later when I saw him presiding over all the discussions, I really admired him,” Zhang Jianxing said, giving a big “thumbs up” with his hand. The wisdom and courage displayed by Lin Zuluan greatly impressed Zhang Jianxing. He was very willing to pledge his loyalty to him. Being the perceptive and quick-witted person he was, Zhang Jianxing became 67-year-old Lin Zuluan’s most valuable assistant. For the next half-year Zhang Jianxing remained faithfully at the side of Lin Zuluan, following him wherever he went.
Zhang Jianxing also made a self-study of videography. Taking other younger guys with him to help, he went to film each important village meeting with the professional video camera he had bought with donated money. He also went with Zhuang Liehong to areas where land had been taken to interview nearby villagers. He collected footage of the 9/21 events shot by Hong Kong’s TVB Jade television station, then spent two days and two nights editing a homemade documentary, Wukan! Wukan! which told the stories behind Wukan’s land issues and the resulting rights movement.
A large curtain was erected in small square in the village, on which Wukan! Wukan! showed for three days straight. Thousands of villagers came to watch the film each day.
It was at this time that the people of Wukan slowly became familiar with Zhang Jianxing. He became known as “the guy at Old Lin’s side,” or “the guy with the camera on his shoulder.”
The situation became more tense with each passing day. On December 3, Zhuang Liehong was arrested while on his way to attend a friend’s wedding in Shunde. Then, three village representatives were arrested. One of them, Xue Jinbo, “accidentally” died in detention. The local government characterized the Wukan Incident as illegal collusion with hostile foreign forces. For safety reasons, Lin Zuluan had started staying away from home at night. Zhang Jianxing led a group of younger “League Members” in guarding the command post on the second floor. During this time he experienced loneliness like he had never before known.
Those were the most intense ten days of the entire movement. Xue Jinbo was dead, no one knew if Zhuang Liehong was dead or alive, and Old Lin was mostly nowhere to be found. Zhang Jianxing occasionally passed on some words of encouragement from Old Lin to the village representatives, to “maintain morale.” But most of the time, he buried himself in piles of documents and equipment. His top priority at that time, he says, was to share what was really going on with the outside world.
He led a group of youths, opening more Weibo and QQ accounts, and continuously broadcasting all kinds of information from Wukan to the outside world: Xue Jinbo’s obituary, images of villagers in collective mourning, calls for Wukan natives working in other areas to come back and support the movement, spreading new slogans on banners… When one account got shut down, they’d just continue on another. “We were waging a news war,” he said.
At night he’d often just wrap himself up in an overcoat and lay down, waking up as soon as his phone or walkie-talkie rang. Takeout containers and empty cans began piling up all over the command post. Chargers, electronics and data cords were everywhere, and the floor was covered with cigarette butts. During those days, Zhang Jianxing averaged two packs a day.
Reporters from all over the world came flooding into Wukan, which provided Zhang Jianxing with new energy.
In addition to providing reporters with information, Zhang and his friends organized where reporters ate, slept, and conducted interviews. He scoured the Internet for the articles written by the journalists he met, downloading them all and making sure they wrote what he and the people of Wukan wanted them to write. He also studied how the articles were written and what kinds of topics excited the reporters.
At first, he assumed the foreign journalists had all come to help the people of Wukan speak out. When he heard a certain reporter from a certain media organization interviewed the old village committee head, or some other official, he became very unhappy. “Why would you want to go interview them? You should be helping us speak out.” He became friends with some of the journalists, who explained to him the concept of journalistic neutrality and objective reporting. “Slowly, I began to understand,” Zhang Jianxing said. He learned many new words from these journalists, who hailed from all over the world—“balanced reporting,” “agenda setting.”
He visited the offices of the interim council daily. “I told them how they should speak with the media,” he explained. Council members were all older than him, in their 40s, 50s, even up into their 70s. “I frequently told them, ‘You can’t say it like this. If you say it like this they’ll say this about you.’ I even yelled at someone 70-years-old. They all said, ‘Ohhhh.’”
“For example, if conflict arose between us and the armed police, no matter who attacked first, we should never say that the villagers attacked first, and always first emphasize any harm done to the villagers,” he said, before his expression changed to a mischievous grin: “You know, I also told more than a few lies to you media people. You want balanced reporting, we’re trying to lead public opinion.”
“I know what you foreign media are interested in, but that’s not Wukan’s objective. Their reports use inflammatory words. I wrote a statement declaring that Wukan upholds the government and the Communist Party. We cannot let the government misunderstand Wukan—we must be very clear.”
Zhang Jianxing wrote the following: “We are not rebelling. We are not against the Communist Party. We are not splitting the country apart. We are purely devoted to the land problem. We are Communist Youth League members. I love the Party, I love the country, and I love my homeland!” He translated his words into English using Baidu Dictionary, and printed both the Chinese and English versions together on A4 paper and posted them everywhere in the village where reporters gathered. “This was my strategy,” he said afterwards.
By spending everyday on Weibo, Zhang Jianxing knew what kind of information earned people’s sympathy—for example when villagers got injured. He knew what kind of information would put Wukan in danger—like challenging the Communist Party. He also knew what kind of information would receive widespread coverage—provocative images, for example.
When a long line of demonstrators were getting ready to march, he stopped the leader, asking him to wait while he found someone to write a big sign in black characters—“May the Central Authorities Save Us”— and brought it up to the front of the line. He took a picture and put it up online.
He understood the importance and value of a slogan and an image more than anyone else in the village.
His Weibo followers increased very quickly—one thousand, four thousand, ten thousand… From time to time, he even took screenshots of notice that a huge amount of new fans had started following him, so he could “look at later.”
Sure enough, the “agenda” he “set” became the focal point of media reports and online discussion.
“I could control the entire public opinion about Wukan,” he said with pride, a tight smile showing on his face.
End of the Show
One year has since passed. Sitting on the big patio of Wukan’s best hotel, South China Sea Manor, the Zhang Jianxing before me is somewhat different from that young person who shouldered a video camera while striding through throngs of people.
The Wukan protests ended in victory for the villagers. One vote per person, 8,208 voters elected a new village committee. Lin Zuluan was elected the committee’s chairman. Zhuang Liehong, who had suffered time in prison, was elected as a committee member.
Zhang Jianxing did not run in the election. He tells people Uncle Lin instructed him to remain outside of the system, where it would be “easier to get things done.” But in his heart he knew that if he ran, not many people would vote for him. All along, he’d been seen as “the guy with Old Lin,” or “the guy with the reporters,” or “the guy with the camera.” Not many people recognized his personal abilities. The other people in the village never really understood the usefulness of “controlling public opinion,” nor were they as interested in it as he was.
This annoyed him. When an architect came to Wukan to conduct an inspection, he found Zhang Jianxing, who made a point to carry blueprints of all sizes on his back alongside the architect, walking through the village many times holding rolled up maps in his hand. “I had to let the villagers know that I was doing real, practical work,” he said.
“Zhang Jianxing is extremely quick-witted. He’s passionate about what he does, and he’s very brave, but he’s still too young. A lot of things…” More than a few villagers have spoken like this about him to reporters—first, a great deal of praise, and then hesitation as they look for the reporter’s reaction with a revealing smile, ending their commentary there.
“You media people just exalt him,” Zhuang Liehong said bluntly. “He’s changed a lot this year.”
After the “victorious revolution,” the relationship between Zhuang Liehong and Zhang Jianxing was not as close as it once was. “Nowadays he doesn’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. He just thinks everything he says is correct. All that success and whatnot, it was all his doing alone; he’s what’s most important. How is that even possible?” Zhuang Liehong said. The two originally planned to continue to work together on sequels to Wukan! Wukan!, making it a series, but each of the few times they met up, they came to an impasse. “Jianxing thinks all the footage he filmed belongs to him. How could it be his? It obviously belongs to the people of Wukan.”
Zhang Jianxing vehemently disagrees. “I just think that Zhuang Liehong doesn’t edit as good as I do. And he doesn’t listen to me, so I just want to do it myself,” he said. “And another thing, all those shots, all those scenes, they were all filmed by me. Where were you all when I was filming? When I was filming you didn’t appreciate what I was doing. You thought none of this was important. If it weren’t for me filming all those secret meetings, would they have been filmed? Put anyone else in my position—could he have filmed from this vantage point? This footage belongs to me. Why would it be the public property of all Wukan residents? Xue Chang’s a Wukan resident—why should I have to share ownership with him?”
“I’m really rebellious right now”—a sentence Zhang Jianxing often repeats shows his feeling of injustice.
These tangled, rebellious feelings have already been building up for over a year.
The people of Wukan quickly forgot about his great contributions and quick response on the Internet during the Wukan Incident. From a traditional point of view, these kinds of things can prove that you’re “nimble,” not that you’re “capable.” But “relevant departments” do remember what he had done, and they still maintain a watchful eye over him. After more than a year, he still hasn’t been able to get a Hong Kong/ Macau travel permit. When he uses strong words about something online, he always hears from them [authorities].
Though he has no real need to travel to Hong Kong and few strong opinions to express, he feels a constant pressure all around him, making him increasingly believe that what’s most important is himself and his own endeavors.
He never left the village to go work. He says Wukan is inseparable from him.
Right after the election, he thought he could help Old Lin continue pressuring the government to get the villagers’ land back. However, the working relationship between the Village Committee and the government had already changed from one of confrontation to one of cooperation. It was of utmost importance to temper the amount of pressure they put on the government. If Zhang Jianxing said something overly aggressive on Weibo, Old Lin would criticize him and order him to delete the post.
After this happened a few times, Zhang Jianxing and Lin Zuluan also gradually drifted apart.
Six months after the new village committee took office, Zhang Jianxing moved all of the equipment out of the Lin household. At that point, only slow progress was being made toward reclaiming lost land, and grievances began resurfacing among the villagers. “From the establishment of the new village committee until now, nothing the secretary said would happen has come true. Before they said every inch of land would be returned. But now we don’t have anything…” Rifts formed between the new village committee, Lin Zuluan, and village residents. Once again, Zhang Jianxing felt there was a need for someone good at “directing public opinion.” He could help build a bridge between the villagers and the village committee. But the time and the situation had changed. Neither the villagers nor the village committee shared unified views on what to do. There Was no foundation to build any bridges on.
Herein lied Zhang Jianxing’s bewilderment with the democracy they had worked so hard to achieve. “Before, I could call up dozens of people with the wave of a hand. But now, I wave my hand, and who is there? This is a change. Everyone in the village has their own opinion. In light of the current situation, their ideas are generally good. But, are they good enough? Comprehensive enough? Profound enough? This is how we differ from them. We think more, think broadly, think deep. Before, we could get the villagers to do what we wanted. We had them going along with our ideas. But now they all have their own ideas. This is what democracy is.”
After the Wukan elections, Internet users sent a great deal of books to Wukan. One of those books, Liu Junning’s Democracy: A Chinese Citizen’s Textbook, has been sitting on Zhang Jianxing’s shelf since he got it. He hasn’t read it. He’s starting to have doubts. “Democracy is good. The problem is, should it be enacted during times of harmony and peace? But our village right now is not peaceful or harmonious, and all of a sudden democracy just springs up…”
One year after the new village committee took office, the land administration had reclaimed over 3 thousand mu of land. The status of about 7 or 8 thousand mu remained up in the air. Most of the already reclaimed land still lacked legally binding national ownership certificates. Instead, there were only administrative approval letters from higher up in the government. It seemed discontent in the village was once again approaching a breaking point. Unable to withstand “curses from the villagers on one hand” and “sureses from Old Lin on the other,” Zhuang Liehong resigned from the village committee. This was not the “victory” he went to jail fighting for.
New objectors began fomenting a “movement revival.”
“A revival would have been fine with me. w could have helped the village committee put pressure on the government in our own way,” Zhang Jianxing believed. The new group of objectors met with Zhang Jianxing for discussions, but they ultimately did not listen to his advice. This made Zhang Jianxing feel even more torn.
“They wanted to revive the movement, to hold another village assembly. I felt that I would have been crucial to achieving all of this. There are so many things that can only be done by me, or would only be successful if I took part. But I won’t and I can’t just flat-out say something like this. Because I’m just an average citizen—what’s special about me? Later on they came to talk to me, and I gave them all kinds of suggestions. But they didn’t listen. I just think… Ah, when it comes down to it, what role do I really have in all of this?”
Over the past year, no matter if it was by Lin Zuluan’s side, exercising his self-proclaimed talent for “directing public opinion,” or “contributing to the movement,” he never again found the right role.
“What role do I have in the Wukan movement? What value do I bring? Is it really true that I’m the only one who get certain things done? Should I continue on like this? If I do continue on, what good will I be doing for myself?” He took many deep breaths as he spoke, like a deep-sea diver straining to fill his lungs.
continued to buy equipment, cell phones, food and cigarettes, buying food and cigarettes for younger friends. In total, he owed over 70 thousand yuan to friends who did business in the village.
Foreign television stations produced documentaries about Wukan that used a lot of content provided by Zhang Jianxing, and some of these documentaries proved very influential internationally. Some villagers poked fun at him when they saw him: Zhang Jianxing, you’re rich! Those television stations must have given you 2 million yuan!
This upsets him. “The food I ate yesterday, others gave to me out of charity. We took the movement in a great direction, giving away all that we achieved to others. But now we don’t even have food to eat!”
“During the Wukan Incident, I met everyone with a smile. I spoke very formally. I thought of myself as a pretty extraordinary guy. But in the end, I wasn’t successful at anything.” One year after the protests ended, he finally understood—he had been marginalized. He once commanded the attention of the outside world. To the media he was a symbol, representing the power of the youth within the Wukan rights movement. He believed in his own importance, but the people of the village never truly recognized his personal abilities.
His rebelliousness came out: “Why do I even want you all to have such a great image of me? What do I owe you people, honestly?” He said he hoped he could “become bad,” and he began wearing shiny tight black western jackets and tight black pants. He wore a huge shiny silver chain around his neck. Standing under the sunlight, he looked like a character right out of Young and Dangerous. He drives a motorcycle, and recently began racing. He’s out with a new girl every day. Sometimes he runs down to Shenzhen to meet up with friends from the past—young people drinking and fooling around who don’t even care about the situation in Wukan.
Many of the younger kids who used to accompany him during those sleepless nights relaying information at the Lin household “provisional command post” are in similarly awkward situations.
During Spring Festival, he had a falling out with one of the younger kids who had always been at his side, a handsome 17-year-old young man. As he left, this “younger brother” offered Zhang Jianxing with some harsh words: “Zhang Jianxing, you’ve got power, you’ve got reputation, you’ve got your benefits… but I was worked twice just like a fool!”
This stunned Zhang Jianxing for a good few days. He finally realized that he could no longer go on living in a fantasy world.
“The whole world is watching Wukan, watching you. What a sham. It’s all fake,” the young man said.
Last month, deciding to try his hand at running a small business, he rented two storefronts next to the future sight of Wukan Park.
He said he hopes to go out and study if he has the chance. Although he’s both a great writer and a great artist, he only completed his first year of high school. This remains his biggest regret. “If I hadn’t dropped out of school, I’d be at university now like you guys,” he said, revealing some insecurity.
After the Wukan Incident, some NGOs and educators expressed willingness to provide him with training or invite him to take part in seminars. But because he remains labeled a sensitive person, and many of these opportunities ended up falling through.
He’s still a dreamer. “One day I want to make a complete documentary—a real, formal documentary. And that includes writing a whole series of books, to record this part of Wukan’s history.” He made a point of stressing the word “formal,” distinguishing the difference between this and his prior “grassroots” work, “Wukan! Wukan!”
As he began speaking about this, the tone of his voice noticeably calmed. In that moment, it seemed something happened—like all the intense emotion of the past had finally left him, like he finally freed himself from the fantasy that the whole world was watching him.
Suddenly, a cell phone rang on the table in front of him. He picked them up one by one, checking to see which was ringing. As the phone sounded, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that maybe the Youth of Wukan had returned once again. [Chinese source]
Translated by Little Bluegill. For extensive video coverage of Wukan since the uprising and first election, see Al Jazeera’s “Wukan: After the Uprising” series.