Tea Leaf Nation

‘Wukan,’ Once a Byword for Chinese Democracy, Now Censored

Five years ago, protests against land grabs in the small village led to an electoral experiment. But little has truly changed.

Villagers listen to the meeting where an envoy from the Shanwei Communist Party Committee met with Wukan village leaders, as they demand the government take action over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader on in Wukan, Guangdong on December 19, 2011.  The village of around 13,000 inhabitants accuse local officials of stealing communal land without compensating them with anger boiling over with the death in police custody of a village leader tasked with negotiating with authorities over the row.            AFP PHOTO/CHINA OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Villagers listen to the meeting where an envoy from the Shanwei Communist Party Committee met with Wukan village leaders, as they demand the government take action over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader on in Wukan, Guangdong on December 19, 2011. The village of around 13,000 inhabitants accuse local officials of stealing communal land without compensating them with anger boiling over with the death in police custody of a village leader tasked with negotiating with authorities over the row. AFP PHOTO/CHINA OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A fishing village in southern Guangdong province, once a standard-bearer for small-time democracy in China, has now become a political disaster — and the most-censored term on Chinese social media.

In September 2011, amid protests over land sales in the village of Wukan, residents closed off roads leading in to the village and expelled local governing officials. Police laid siege as residents stockpiled food. Villagers conspicuously proclaimed their loyalty to the ruling Communist Party during the protest, indicating that they were not rebelling against it, but asking for its intervention. In what is sometimes called the “Wukan model” for handling dissent, the dispute was eventually resolved when the provincial party secretary negotiated with the villagers, granting them the right to elect a local leader.

The sudden detention of that democratically-elected leader, Wukan Communist Party Secretary Lin Zulian, has mobilized Wukan residents to protest once again, and has kicked China’s massive online censorship apparatus into high gear. Some time in mid-June, Lin posted a letter to his account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, announcing his intent to organize a mass demonstration protesting further illegal land sales, a practice endemic in China in which local governments seize land, often held by small farmers, for lucrative resale to commercial ventures.

But days later, on Friday, June 17, dozens of police cars arrived in Wukan; Lin was detained early the next morning. Law enforcement authorities in Lufeng City, which oversees Wukan, released a statement that Lin was suspected of taking bribes. Local residents claim there’s been another land grab, and many felt the allegations were a cover for silencing Lin. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, 400 police faced off with villagers for several hours on June 18. On June 19, thousands of residents marched to the slogan “Return our secretary,” according to one resident’s interview with the New York Times.

As often happens during protests, Wukan residents soon took to the internet. They posted videos and pictures of the village surrounded by police, and shared images of recovered surveillance video of Lin being taken away in the middle of the night. But in what has become a common tale pitting netizens against China’s increasingly controlled web, many posts were quickly taken down in a swift flurry of censorship. On June 19 and June 20, “Wukan” and “villagers” were the most censored terms on Weibo, according to censorship tracker Weiboscope, operated by the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. Lin’s account is now deactivated. After the extensive elimination of Wukan-related posts and comments, only a few news stories from certain media and updates from government accounts are still available on Weibo. In an open letter published online by the local police department, villagers have been asked to cooperate with Lin’s investigation and to avoid “extreme actions.”

Only a fraction of the hundreds of comments that poured in on social media remain, but what’s left evinces support of Lin and the villagers. A user who claimed to be from Wukan wrote“Secretary Lin is the one we voted for, one person, one vote. Our Wukan needs Secretary Lin.” The user also disavowed the strong police showing to arrest a “more than 70-year-old man.” Another added, “Everyone in Lufeng knows about this. He is a white-haired old man fighting for his people. He’s been laden with trumped-up charges.” One Weibo user asked if the act was “revenge” for Lin’s previous activism.

While journalists continue to have access to Wukan, netizens widely reposted a video clip of a Wukan government official cursing and threatening Hong Kong reporters on June 20. The official, identified as the deputy mayor of Donghai county, which administers Wukan, barked at reporters, brandished an umbrella threateningly, and used it to shield himself from cameras as if it were a truncheon. One reporter shouted back, “You shouldn’t curse … You’re a government official.” In a subsequent shot, Zhang Shuijin, appointed by the county as Lin’s replacement shortly after his arrest, tried to calm down the villagers but was called out by an unidentified woman in a flowered shirt for “selling out the village.”

Local government land grabs are endemic across China, leading to thousands of protests each year as landholders try to obtain fair compensation. Land sales are a major source of income for many local governments, which sometimes aim to boost development through expensive construction or infrastructure projects. In the process of clearing land for such projects, local officials often compensate farmers with only a fraction of the seized land’s value. A 2011 survey of 1,791 farmers conducted across 17 provinces revealed that farmers whose land has been taken received an average of $17,850 per acre in compensation — whereas authorities pocketed an average of about $740,000 per acre after resale, largely for commercial ventures. It’s unsurprising, then, that Wukan protesters seem to have struck a collective nerve across the country.

The redux in Wukan highlights an irony central to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012. Xi’s signature policy has been a sweeping campaign against corruption, as well as harsh crackdowns on dissenting speech. Yet sometimes speech is necessary to highlight corruption, as it was in Wukan several years ago. That’s a reality that prevailing authorities don’t seem to accept. As a June 20 editorial in party-owned newspaper Global Times stated in response to the Wukan protests, “If the drastic actions of the Wukan villagers are adopted by other people involved in disputes, China will see mess and disturbance at a grass-roots level.” In Xi’s China, the negotiation that mollified Wukan residents in 2011 may no longer be possible. Yet the corruption there continues.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Leah Liu is an intern at FP's Tea Leaf Nation. @LeahLLL

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola