Wukan Village, a cry for democracy from the grassroots in China

Wukan, a small village in Lufeng, Guangdong, became the focus of China politics again. Five years ago, large scale farmers’ protest broke out due to land dispute in Wukan village. More than 4,000 people went on the street, eventually forcing the Chinese communist regime to give in and allowed villagers to elect their village chief with equal and anonymous vote. Lin Zuluan, leader of the farmers’ protest and twice elected as the chairman of villagers’ committee, was taken away by police for “accepting bribery” in June this year. In September, Lin was sentenced to prison for 3 years and 1 month. The verdict has led to another large scale protest by the villagers.

Local government crackdown on elected village chief

The “Wukan Village Model” was once considered as an example of rational response to public demand for democracy by the Chinese government, a milestone of bottom up democratic development. But this new hope did not last long.  After being elected as the chairman of villagers’ committee, Lin Zuluan has vowed to take back villagers’ land unlawfully occupied or sold, but for years the demand did not receive response from the local government. Experts pointed out that many of the local officials, together with many other powerful people, were involved in the unlawful occupation and sale of farmers’ land, and that was why the local government did not want to touch on this sensitive issue.

With nowhere to turn to, Lin Zuluan planned to make a petition to higher level government with the villagers. But just before the date of their planned action, he was arrested for accusations made up by the police. In fact, before Lin Zuluan was arrested, two vice-chairpersons of the villager’s committee were arrested, and another member of villagers’ committee was seeking asylum from the USA government. The actions of the local government were to stop the Wukan villagers from demanding justice from the corrupted officials, which triggered large scale protest by the villagers. 

Accusations made up on villagers

Accusations made up on villagers

The incident in Wukan village has outraged the villagers, who went on strike in the market and schools. A “marathon” rally of 80 days was organized in the village.  On 13 September, a large troop of armed police and public security entered the village. After serious conflict with the villagers in protest, the police dispersed the villagers with tear gas and plastic bullets, and arrested 13 villagers in home raid at dawn.  According to the public security office of Lufeng, these villagers were arrested for participating in unauthorized assembly, rally and protest, and have seriously disrupted public order. The local authority warned the villagers “not to be agitated by the unlawful ones, stop participating in unlawful assembly, rally and protest”. After the crackdown, the local government drove away Chinese and foreign media to blockade the news. Five reporters from Hong Kong were detained and beaten up by police during detention.

Comparing to the Chinese central government under Hu Jingtao’s leadership which sent communist party committee of Guangdong Province to Wukan to mediate the situation in 2011, Xi Jinping’s used high-handed approach to Wukan as if he was dealing with close enemies. The all-round crackdown in Wukan and unlawful arrest of human right activists and lawyers by central and local governments are indicators that China is entering iron-fist era under the Xi leadership.

Right to independent and autonomous organization

Incidents related to land disputes are happening daily in Mainland China, and Wukan is just a tip of the iceberg. According to the Institute of Sociology of Academia Sinica, among the 200,000 cases of large scale protests, nearly half of them were related to land disputes. Wukan was once considered a new model in practicing grassroots democratic election, which could hopefully be promoted in other villages for check and balance of local bullies. But the cruel reality told us the “Wukan Village Model” is still part of the “bird cage election” of the Communist Party of China. The chairman of villagers’ committee, though elected through universal suffrage by the villagers, was still under the leadership and surveillance of chief of village party branch. Leaders of county and provincial government have vested interest in a complicated network with local bullies, which prevented them from delegating actual power, making elected representatives at grassroots a nominal position.  

The failure of democratization of village elections is very similar to reform of grassroots unions in recent years. Though some grassroots unions have undergone “reform” and elected their workers’ representatives, there were repeated cases of reducing power or replacing representatives by the higher level unions. If the Chinese government does not open up right to free association and organization, democratic reforms at the grassroots would only become a tool for whitewashing and maintaining stability.