Five years after launching protests against officials’ seizure of public land that led to local elections, villagers in Wukan, Guangdong again took to the streets last weekend after elected village chief Lin Zuluan was detained and removed from office. Protesters have been demanding both the release of Lin, himself a leader of the 2011 protests, and long overdue resolve to their land dispute; Lin was reportedly detained the day before the village assembly had planned to petition central authorities about the land grabs. On Tuesday, state television aired Lin “confessing” to the crime of taking bribes, but villagers are largely unconvinced that his admission was made by his own accord. As the demonstrations in Wukan enter their fifth day, NPR’s Anthony Kuhn recalls the significance of the 2011 protests in Wukan, the democratic concessions they led to, and the lingering problems displayed by this new round of unrest:
Back in 2011, the events in Wukan were seen as a milestone, as a small Chinese community challenged local authorities and demanded democracy, at least at the village level. The villagers’ demonstrations, the government’s response and a resulting compromise between the two sides were considered models that might be copied and applied to the thousands of similar local disputes that erupt across the country every year.
But the resumption of protests now suggests that Wukan’s underlying problems were not fixed.
[…] A villager who spoke on condition of anonymity says that now, just like five years ago, protests were triggered by the actions of property developers, who took village land without compensating residents.
“Secretary Lin intervened with the authorities on our behalf, but the authorities took no action,” he said. “At the villagers’ request, Lin called a meeting and decided to keep protesting, and as a result, he was taken away.”Land grabs are a common problem in rural China, and especially in Guangdong province, where urbanization is rapidly swallowing up farmland. […] [Source]
While the democratic concessions reached in 2011 originally won wide public support, many Wukan villagers became disillusioned with the democratic experiment as former leaders regained their influence in local politics after many of those elected were forced from office. A post from Chinaworker.info explains how the allegedly “free” democratic experiment launched in Wukan had in reality been strategically managed by Party bureaucrats:
Elections were allowed to take place in Wukan in March 2012 but they were not as ‘free’ as widely presented. There were widespread complaints of police intimidation and threats against key activists, to block more ‘radical’ elements from standing. The substantive issue – reclaiming the stolen land – remained unresolved and has now erupted in the latest round of protests.
After the elections, through which Lin and other protest leaders took control of the village committee, the higher authorities pursued a twin strategy of persecution of the most radical layers of the Wukan movement, along with financial and administrative sabotage to deny Wukan’s elected leaders any possibility to resolve the land question.
The aim of the regional CCP bureaucrats has been to protect their own interests (which may well include hiding their own gains from illicit land deals) and at the same time to discredit Wukan’s experiment with village ‘democracy’. The net result is that almost five years after the original protests, the demands of the original Wukan movement are no closer to fulfilment. “It’s like being given a check for two million yuan, but it bounces when you go to the bank,” is how one villager described the promises that were made in 2011 by Wang Yang and Co to demobilise the mass protests. [Source]
Marching by the thousands this week in stifling heat through their small coastal village, residents of Wukan carried Chinese flags and shouted out slogans in support of the Communist Party. That was just to protect themselves from retribution by the riot police, who watched them closely but did not intervene. Their real message was in other chants: “Give us back our land!” and “Free Secretary Lin!”
The secretary in question was their village chief, Lin Zulian, whom they elected in 2012 in what was widely hailed at the time as a breakthrough for grassroots democracy. Mr Lin had led Wukan in a months-long rebellion against local authorities. Villagers kicked out party officials and police from their offices in protest against the alleged seizure of some of Wukan’s land by corrupt officials who had lined their pockets with the proceeds of selling it. Police responded by blockading the village, turning it into a cause célèbre—including in some of the feistier of China’s heavily censored media. In the end the government backed down: it allowed Wukan to hold unusually free elections and it promised to sort out the land dispute. The “Wukan model” became Chinese reformists’ shorthand for what they hoped would be a new way of defusing unrest.
[…] They have been disappointed. Villagers did not get their land back, or the money some wanted in lieu of it. Mr Lin, who won another landslide victory in elections two years ago, announced plans on June 18th to launch a new campaign for the return of the land. That was clearly too much for the local government: Mr Lin was promptly arrested on charges of corruption. Angry residents took to the streets again. [Source]
Reporting on the fifth day of protest in Wukan, Radio Free Asia’s Wong Lok-to, Gok Man-fung, and Yang Fan note that Lin Zuluan is not the first official elected after the 2011 protests to be charged with bribery and removed from office:
Prosecutors have accused Lin of “pocketing a large sum of money” through contracting village infrastructure projects.
But local people remember earlier clashes in 2011, when Lin directed a series of non-violent protests over the mass selloff of land by his predecessor Xue Chang, during which protester Xue Jinbo died in police custody, igniting mass displays of public mourning that further kindled public anger.
[…W]hile Lin was appointed head of the village committee, and several of the 2011 protest leaders were elected as a result, very little was done to retrieve Wukan’s lost farmland, villagers said.
Then, in July 2014, former protest leaders Hong Ruichao and Yang Semao, who had both served on the newly elected village committee, were jailed for four and two years respectively for “accepting bribes.” Relatives said the charges against them were trumped-up by local officials in an act of political revenge. [Source]
Two lawyers hired by the family of Lin Zuluan have reportedly been pressured against representing the detained former village chief. The Hong Kong Free Press’ Catherine Lai reports on lawyer Ge Yongxi’s claims that authorities have ordered him to withdraw from the case:
Ge Yongxi posted on Weibo yesterday that Lin’s three sons had hired him as his defence lawyer. However, he was notified by his firm that the Justice Bureau has ordered the firm to return the money on Wednesday, said the post. This post, along with reposts by others, have been taken down.
[…] When contacted by HK01 yesterday, Ge Yongxi said there was no legal basis for the Bureau ordering him to withdraw from the case. He said Guangzhou’s Justice Bureau, Public Security Bureau and Internal Security Bureau have requested to meet with him, causing him to feel that his personal safety is under threat.
[…] China’s Criminal Procedures law states that “detained criminal suspects or defendants may also have their guardian or close relatives retain a defender on their behalf,” in Article 33.
At Voice of America, Joyce Huang reports that Yu Pinjian, another rights lawyer hired by Lin’s family, received threatening telephone calls immediately after being hired, and was harassed by authorities while traveling to Wukan:
Last night, Yu tried to make it to the village, but was intercepted by authorities.
“While on his way to Wukan last night, he was stopped by local judicial officials who asked him to go home,” a non-government organization worker, who stays with Lin’s family in Wukan, told VOA.
Upon Yu’s arrival in Shanwei city, where Wukan village is located, Yu wrote on Weibo that his family called and conveyed a threatening message from the authorities: “If you return home tonight, nothing will happen. If not, things will get ugly tomorrow.”
Yu said he headed back home.
“What has happened to the rule of law in China?” he wrote. [Source]
The VOA report also notes that the Shanwei city government, which oversees Wukan, has tightened security measures in the village and ordered all journalists to vacate the area. Foreign media became the official scapegoat of the 2011 unrest in Wukan, and a Shanwei press official this week blamed Hong Kong media outlets for “inciting, planning, and directing” the ongoing unrest, after claiming “we welcome overseas media to interview and report, according to the law and regulations, objectively and fairly.” Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia reports that Lu Yuyu, a blogger known for compiling and making public data on China’s many “mass incidents,” has been incommunicado for nearly a week. RFA quoted a friend of Lu’s saying, “I’m thinking that perhaps he went to Wukan [to cover the protests] and got detained there on arrival.”