The Spirit of Wukan

Can a small farming town's remarkable protest against corrupt officials spread across China?

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

WUKAN, ChinaPeasants do not have a good record facing off with the Communist Party. Rural standoffs usually end with the arrest of the ringleaders and an increased security presence for the remaining residents. Yet on Thursday afternoon, Dec. 22, residents of the embattled village of Wukan scored a major achievement in their 11-day stand-off with local government, securing the release of one of the village’s three detained leaders; the other two were released today.

On Wednesday, a deputy party secretary of Guangdong Province arrived to negotiate with village leaders, promising to grant all of their initial demands: release of three elected representatives of Wukan who were detained two weeks ago; return of the body of Xue Jinbo, a village leader who died in police custody; and direct negotiations with the temporary committee, a interim governing body chosen by villagers, whose members were earlier denounced by the government as criminals. "It is totally unprecedented that a high-level official will come to talk with protesting farmers," one activist who came to witness events told me on Tuesday night.

In September, residents of Wukan accused local officials of embezzling more than $110 million dollars of money owed to them for selling more than 80 percent of the villager’s arable land to developers, and marched on the county seat. Significantly, compared with the tens of thousands of other protests that happen across China each year, local officials fled Wukan on Dec. 11, leaving the town in the hands of the village community. Their success puts them in a risky position, as the Wukanese have challenged not just the local authorities but a basic assumption behind Communist Party rule: that the Chinese people, and especially the rural masses, need authoritarian rule to prevent the country from descending into chaos. Ten days into life without police or party officials, Wukan was almost peaceful — save for the array of police forces that surrounded the town. Still, the gumption of the Wukanese may be a new model for activism in communities across China.

After initial destruction of property at local government offices, Wukan’s temporary committee announced this to be a nonviolent protest. The deserted police station is still locked and intact, as are the houses of local elites and families of officials, most of whom have left the village. Villagers refrained from looting and instead focused on bringing food into the village through back roads, away from security forces that massed outside. They coordinated mass rallies, making protest signs, and cooked for the hordes of journalists who descended on the village.

One Western reporter compared the atmosphere in Wukan to that of the Paris Commune; a veteran Hong Kong journalist reminisced about Beijing in the spring of 1989, before the crackdown on Tiananmen. He described then an almost intoxicating sense of unity and generosity, where cab drivers drove protestors for free and thieves vowed to switch professions, buoyed by a feeling that all was good and possible in the fleeting moment. 

But can the spirit of Wukan last? The small farming village of 13,000 thousand embodies social changes brought about by more than 30 years of economic reforms in China. The first generation of migrant workers that left their villages to work in the cities is now retiring from factory work. Many of them have returned to their villages to open small businesses or work their families’ fields. But they have found a harsh truth: Local governments, relying ever more heavily on land sales to generate income and wielding unchecked power over their citizens, have left rural residents with few ways to support themselves. In Wukan, the protest was supported by a group of returnees, mostly in their thirties and forties, who had moved back to the village over the past few years planning to settle back into rural life — but who have been unsettled by the pervasive corruption.

Yang Semao, 43, head of the temporary committee, came back to the village in June after a few years working in the boomtown of Shehzhen, about 100 miles away. "When I returned it became clear to me that things are getting worse here," he says. Many of the villagers had lost much of their land in the deal, while high inflation eats away at their savings.

"Until few months ago, it was each person to himself here," says another recent returnee, Jiang, who gave just his last name for fear of government reprisal for speaking to reporters. "Some of us petitioned but we weren’t very organized. Now we think it’s better if we act together. We become more organized, more united, with each day that passes."

But it’s not only the older crowd. The most effective young activist in Wukan is probably a 20 year old surnamed Zhang, the village’s videographer. He spent two years at a vocational school in a nearby city where he taught himself to use a video camera, with the goal of becoming an independent filmmaker. When protests started in September, he returned with his camera. Zhang’s footage of police violence and his friend’s eye-catching protest banners distributed to journalists on compact discs and posted on Chinese microblogs brought Wukan to the world’s attention.

While the Wukan movement made global headlines, local news was suppressed by Chinese government censors. Some Chinese netizens, however, have still found ways to spread news from Wukan around the country, using different Chinese characters for the village’s name.  Some posts were forwarded thousands of times before being deleted by censors.

Despite government warnings and increased surveillance on dissidents during this last week, more than a dozen activists made their way through police checkpoints and into the village, sneaking in on side roads and helped by sympathizers from other villages. Some of them had earlier this year participated in the still ongoing campaign against the house arrest of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his family, a cause célèbre most recently taken up by film star Christian Bale. Veteran activists tweeted about the scene to the outside world, offering advice to the villagers.

Still, there were tensions between the two groups: Dissidents wanted to make this protest the start of a wider movement for broader social change across China, while most Wukanese stressed that they only wanted resolution of their local issues, and that they maintained trust in the Communist Party. Surprisingly, even though Wukan’s leaders called for an end to the protest and the roads around the city have been opened, the village still enjoys autonomy. Whether this is the start of a softer approach by the Chinese government to rural unrest, or just a way to quiet things in Wukan until the media loses interest, remains to be seen.

Zheng Yanxiong, a mid-ranking official, best captured the mood in a speech that went viral over the Chinese Internet. Zheng reproached Wukan for seeking help from the foreign media instead of the government, and dismissed claims of police violence as false. In a moment of probably unintentional honesty, he said: "As villagers get smarter, they become harder to manage." If this intelligence spreads it could be difficult indeed.

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