by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: VOA/CC 

Recent Civil Unrest in Wukan Village

CIVIL UNREST has set in at China’s Wukan village, located in Lufeng, Guangdong province, after the arrest of a local leader known for his leadership of a protest movement against government land seizures and corruption. The 72-year-old Lin Zuluan, who was democratically elected by villagers, is accused of taking bribes and has been arrested as part of the Xi Jinping’s currently ongoing anti-corruption campaign.

But despite the release of a videotaped confession by Lin online, villagers are disbelieving of the charges, view the confession as forced, and demand his release. Two thousand to three thousand villagers demonstrated on Monday, including a number of students who left class to demonstrate, and the town is currently has strong presence from riot police. Six villagers have been summoned for questioning by authorities. Further protests are planned, with talk of further demonstrations or marching to Lufeng government headquarters to protest. According to leaked information, coverage of the incident is already banned in China.

A History of Uprisings in Wukan

WUKAN VILLAGE, a coastal fishing village with a population of about 15,000, previously made international headlines in 2011 after an uprising by villagers against the local government in protest of land seizures which villagers alleged to be illegal, with the government seizing land and selling it for commercial use but underpaying those whom the land had been seized from. Land seizures of this sort are a common problem in China, with corrupt officials sometimes lining their own pockets with the proceeds of lucrative land sales of seized land, or attempting to make up budget shortfalls. This is often done with the collusion of local party officials and development companies.

The “Wukan Siege” which took place in the fall of 2011 was viewed as an extraordinary example of protest, because of demonstrations that lasted over six months and which involved thousands of villagers. Villagers alleged that local leaders had sold 60% of the village’s 11 mile territory over the course of eighteen years illegally without the approval of villagers, and demonstrated against further land grabs. Hotels, homes, factories, a power company, and pig farm were among what built on seized land.

Hundreds of riot police were deployed to Wukan to quell protests, with women, children, and elderly beaten, and accusations of the use of hired thugs by businessmen seeking to develop seized land. Provoking further outrage, Xue Jinbo, a village representative and a leader of the protests, died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody, with police alleging sudden cardiac failure, but Xue’s family claims that Xue’s body was bloodied, covered with cuts and bruises, had his thumbs bent and twisted, and that he had no history of heart problems. At the height of the protests, the village was surrounded, food and water supplies were cut off, and villagers feared that they would be killed by riot police after storming the village.

News of the protests were censored in China and underreported in domestic media, but the events were heavily reported on by international media. Though dealing with the expected Internet censorship, protests began with organizing through Chinese social media in 2009 by the “Wukan Hot-Blooded Patriotic Youth League”, which seemed to consist primarily of young people. The protest movement originally began with a petition campaign, but actions escalated after this proved ineffective, with villagers attacking government and police buildings. Notably, local bloggers played a key role in organizing and spreading information of the incident, though Chinese media attempted to label the protests as being disorderly disturbances caused by troublemakers.

The resolution of the “Wukan Siege” was also extraordinary, with the central government agreeing to remove local party secretary and head village representative Xue Chang and allow local elections in Wukan to allow villagers to choose their leaders. Xue Chang had been party secretary since 1970 and 5 of the nine members of the village committee had been in power since the creation of the village committee system for local elections by Deng Xiaoping.

Though local village representatives are normally elected in China democratically and villagers were demonstrating against what they saw as members of the village committee illegally staying in power by refusing to allow for competitors, international media focused in on the aspect of Wukan as a radical democratic experiment, with the perception that there was not any precedent in China in which the central government agreed to bow to the demands of civil demonstrators and allow for elections. It was such that in elections held following the Wukan Siege, Lin Zuluan was elected as village head. Xue Jianwan, daughter of the deceased Xue Jibo, was also elected as a village representative.

As such, in China, the “Wukan model” came to be seen as a model of compromise by the government, with the unique fact that in Wukan the government under Guandong governor Wang Yang backed down in the face of protest and made concessions to popular discontent, rather than putting down the revolt with force, as is more often done in these kinds of incidents. Though not unique as a land dispute, the resolution of the event was seen as the first of its kind in China, and the unusual nature of the Wukan mobilization was seen as hailing the precedent for future forms of protest in China. It has been suggested that other village protests regarding issues of land seizures or environmental issues in years following 2011 have seen the Wukan Siege as an inspiration.

Ultimately A Problem of the Party-State’s Defense of Capital

THE WUKAN SIEGE took place shortly before Xi Jinping took the Chinese presidency, leading to questions of what future government policy regarding popular revolt in China under the Xi presidency would be. The resolution of the Wukan Siege would seem to have presaged the possibility of conciliatory policy under Xi.

Yet if Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has now turned against Lin Zuluan, this probably points to how Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is aimed at rooting out dissidence in the name of anti-corruption—and in many cases, has reinstated corrupt officials in place of genuine reformers because of fears that reformers could be a threat to established government authority and be too disturbing of the capitalist social order of China.

Lin’s arrest is seen in part as retribution for earlier actions but also because Lin had called for a renewed campaign against land grabs. Namely, in the years following the Wukan Siege, land grabs had not been fully reversed, leading to retrenchment in the Wukan democratic experiment and some newly elected village representatives proved to be as corrupt as previous leaders. With government officials now suggesting Lin was as corrupt as those he replaced as cause for his arrest, they would be seizing on this fact. In the video of Lin’s confession, however, Lin appears to be reading a scripted confession.

State-run media outlet Global Times has inveighed against the ability of popular revolts to settle land issues, stating that “disputes over property rights cannot be solved merely through democratic means”, dismissing “grass-roots democracy” and sneering at the villagers in Wukan as “intrepid and headstrong…[people] cannot be easily talked down”, suggesting a view of irrationality on the part of villagers by the central government. According to the state, resolving the problem requires “authority of law”, probably just cipher for that the people of Wukan should not stand up for their own interests and blindly obey the state.

Chinese government officials have also lashed out at foreign media, particularly singling out Hong Kong media outlets Apple Daily and Initium Media, for “provoking” protests—apparently, cipher for covering protests rather than ignoring them, as is the case with Chinese domestic media. Wukan villagers were at times reliant on foreign media to get the message out about their actions in light of lack of coverage within China in 2011.

But this may point towards a limitation of the protests in themselves, given their appeals are still directed towards the Chinese government. We might note that in both the 2011 Wukan Siege and present protests, villagers still aimed their appeals to the government to live up to its mandate, rather than wholly breaking with it. In both past and present protests, the language of Chinese patriotism is used, and Chinese flags are a common sight during protests. The central government was called on to redress the flaws of the local government, for example, that is, calling on the central government to right the wrong committed by the local government.

This use of of petitioning, calling for rightful remonstrance, or use of “rightful resistance” discourse is not unique to China as a way of phrasing discontents. Such forms of protests are often aimed at expressing discontents in a manner that minimizes how they might appear as threats to a government. Particularly in the Chinese context, there is always the threat of violent force being used to put down protests. Thus, many popular discontents in China rely on this phrasing in the language of patriotism, including labor disputes. 

However, in this case, what protests in Wukan ultimately return is the systemic issues of the Chinese government acting in the interests of capital and seeking down to put down what it perceives as threats to its ability to preserve present social relations of capitalist exploitation in China. With present protests as compared to previous ones, we see where it is not just an issue of the local level that can be redressed through appeals to the central government, but returns to the central government seeking down to put down local resistance that it sees as a possible threat—quite possibly to make an example to prevent the Wukan Siege from being inspiring of future revolts.

Thus, as with many popular discontents in China, regardless of how present events in Wukan are ultimately resolved at present, the problems of Wukan ultimately return to the problems of China as a whole under the party-state which acts against the interests of the people and in defense of capital. And at the end of the day, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun—the state retains a monopoly on legitimate violence and if its patience runs out in the face of popular discontent, it can come in with force.

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