Wang Yang

It takes a village to inspire millions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am

Stars glittered like jewels in Wukan's tranquil night sky. The sounds of Chaoshan opera echoed in the fishing village's narrow, stony alleys.

It was a calm, mellow evening, in stark and unexpected contrast to the fiery rally just hours earlier.

On that afternoon, December 19, more than 1,000 villagers had gathered in Wukan's central square, the Cultural Revolution's anthem, The East Is Red, blaring through loudspeakers as they renewed their nearly four-month-long protest over land rights.

Their rage had been inflamed by the death in custody of protest leader Xue Jinbo, 42. Officials attributed his death on December 11 to natural causes, but villagers accused police of beating him to death.

In September, the unrest temporarily subsided after the local government promised to investigate the villagers' complaints. The people were also allowed to elect a temporary committee to represent the village - an unusual whiff of democracy.

But in the following weeks, angry villagers continued to petition the government in Lufeng city, which oversees Wukan, denouncing their local officials for 'secretly selling' hundreds of hectares of collectively owned farmland to a property developer since 2006 and 'embezzling' more than 700 million yuan (HK$862.4 million) of compensation the villagers should have received.

Local authorities declared the petitions illegal and brutally cracked down. More than a dozen villagers, including children, were beaten.

Wukan residents responded by raiding the Communist Party's village committee's office, a police station and several factories. More than a dozen people were injured.

The spread of false rumours that two children had been beaten to death in the September crackdown indicated 'the extremely low level of credibility of some local governments, and mounting disappointments,' said Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University in Hong Kong.

On November 21, some 5,000 Wukan villagers, furious that authorities had failed to fulfil promises to investigate uncompensated seizures of land, staged another rally to petition the Lufeng government.

Unlike the march in September, this protest seemed well-orchestrated, peaceful and well thought out. Slogans called for the investigation of corrupt land deals and for democracy in the village.

The call for democracy and the fact that the village was allowed to govern itself temporarily are rare on the mainland, as was the unanimity shown by Wukan's residents.

In mid-December, just as the villagers were preparing to sacrifice themselves if the authorities carried out a rumoured military crackdown, Zhu Mingguo , deputy party secretary of Guangdong province, suddenly proffered an olive branch. This time the peace offer had substance: Zhu had the tacit backing of provincial party secretary Wang Yang , a contender for elevation next year to the party's top national decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.

Village leaders agreed to cancel a mass march on Lufeng's government on December 21 in which they planned to petition for a probe of dodgy land deals and the return of Xue's body. The protest dissolved peacefully, and calm returned to Wukan, a coastal village of roughly 13,000 people about 120 kilometres east of Hong Kong.

Roadblocks that had isolated the village during tense weeks of protest were suddenly removed, and street action gave way to dialogue with Zhu.

The provincial government appointed a panel of investigators consisting of senior Guangdong officials to address the villagers' complaints about land giveaways and fixed elections. Protest leaders were set free, the temporary village committee was ratified, and a second autopsy was arranged for Xue.

The villagers had won a remarkable victory - an inspiration for hundreds of millions of people throughout the mainland. After months of battles, the peace deal agreed late last month offered what most villagers had dared not dream of. Wukan had become an outstanding example of a successful peasant revolt.

On the mainland, more than half a million villages have been victimised by corrupt land deals amid rapid urbanisation and non-transparent land laws. But their inhabitants' plight has rarely been heard by the world or handled fairly by senior government officials.

Zhang Lifan , a historian formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said 'the Wukan model' was a landmark for the resolution of the mainland's many land disputes.

It was also good politics, he said: 'This incident was a test for Wang, and he made a wise choice - his choice of non-confrontational, peaceful negotiations was a good move for his career.'

On microblogging sites, Wukan is commonly referred to as the W village or Niaoqian village, which is written almost the same in Chinese characters, to avoid the censors.

As the events in Wukan created ripples of hope across the nation, its name has emerged as a shining icon of civil rights. Dozens of internet users, university students and peasants who had been the victims of similar land seizures flocked to the village to show their support or to learn from its experience.

One of Wukan's leaders, Lin Zuluan , 67, a retiree with a business and military background, said the people's grievances about land rights were reasonable and legal.

'No matter how Wukan's battle over land deals turns out in future, today's result is already a spiritual victory for Wukan's people,' he said.

Feelings in Wukan remain tense. Protest leader Zhuang Liehong , released on December 23, kowtowed repeatedly to Xue's widow until his forehead bled.

'He gave his life for Wukan,' Zhuang said. 'There is nothing we can do to ever repay him or to compensate for the family's loss.'

Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling , who stayed in Wukan for two days to study its petition model, paid tribute to Xue on December 16.

Upon his return home two days later, he was taken away by police. He was detained until December 20 in two police stations, then forced to travel with his wife, escorted by state security personnel, to Foshan , Zhaoqing and Zhuhai until December 27.

'The Wukan incident reflects classic problems of illegal land seizures faced by Chinese villages,' Tang said.

'It also sets a new level for the quality and effectiveness of people's petitions,' he said. 'Villagers resorted to self-rule and mobilised a mass petition on an unprecedented scale - even children were seen leading the march ... I haven't seen anything like that before.'

Tang praised the villagers for using the organising and connecting power of village clans to mobilise people and for taking advantage of the media to document their battle.

And what a campaign it was. Although the sit-in demonstrations last month remained orderly, authorities arrested four of the protest leaders. The tension spiked when the villagers heard of Xue's death. They staged rounds of defiant stand-offs and a mourning ceremony.

The villagers put up barricades to stop police from entering. Police set up their own barricades to keep outsiders out. They also attempted to block food supplies into the village, although many villagers managed to get supplies in by taking little-known goat paths off the main road.

Wukan men guarded the village's main entrances, protected by amateur roadblocks made by roping together tree trunks and nail boards with electrical cables. Key roads leading to the village were guarded by police 'anti-triad checkpoints' to keep journalists from entering.

But when news of Xue's death came out, Wukan became the focus of international media attention, with hordes of journalists dodging police checkpoints and flocking to the village. Then came the mass rally, the plans to march on Lufeng - and the olive branch from Zhu that turned the whole situation around.

As life returns to normal, the broken bricks and trash - left over from prolonged demonstrations - that filled the village's streets have been replaced by firecracker paper from morning worship at local temples.

Large white banners along Wukan's main roads spelling out the villagers' complaints are gone, replaced by big red banners welcoming Zhu's visit to the village.

The provincial government's gesture was widely seen as a desperate attempt to avoid yet another embarrassing showdown by Wukan villagers and a rare compromise by a communist government better known for its high-handed approach to quelling civil unrest.

The episode could become a factor in national politics: Wang, perceived as one of the more liberal leaders, and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai , a hardliner, are two closely watched rivals for the politburo position.

Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst and former professor at Renmin University, said: 'Who the leader is matters hugely where social unrest is concerned. Different officials would have likely driven a different path, one far less disposed to dialogue.'

There was earlier speculation that the crisis could jeopardise Wang's chances of joining the standing committee next year, but analysts say the peaceful settlement of the defiant stand-offs in Wukan will gain him extra political credit.

'Under the scrutiny of the international media, the ability to handle mass incidents would definitely score points for Wang,' Yu Yiwei, vice-president of the Guangdong Humanities Society, said.

In the end, Moses said, the struggle between the villagers and the officials was a battle for attention: 'For Wukan residents, it was to be listened to in Guangzhou, while for local cadres, it was to have their case heard by Beijing.

'There was little choice but to settle this at the provincial level, so that the issue remains a regional matter and does not reflect badly on those higher up.'

Wukan's peaceful and effective resolution is being seen as the new national standard for addressing upcoming land grab conflicts, a problem shared by millions of peasants across the nation. Many who fought short-lived battles either chose to integrate into large cities or live a suppressed life. Rarely have Chinese villagers staged a fight like Wukanians.

Beijing-based political analyst Hu Xingdou said Wukan might provide officials with a standard for handling mass incidents triggered by land conflicts.

'But it is hard to see Wukan as an immediate turning point for system reform,' Hu said, 'because current institutions lack the democratic conditions to demand a transparent administration.

'Hence, officials are still being encouraged to hide the truth and deploy hardline approaches to crack down on mass petitions.'

Exactly how long the peace in Wukan will hold is a matter of conjecture. Tang said the victory might be short-lived. Those hoping for a model for the rest of the mainland might be disappointed, he said.

'The open dialogue with the government and peaceful outcome appear to be random, but it is an inspiring lesson giving hope,' Tang said. 'It allows many fellow petitioners to see a breakthrough point. This is remarkably significant and should not be underestimated.

'Wukan might not bring about systemic reform, but it is an inspiring lesson for other petitioners, who will deploy the same strategy.

'This will gradually build up a familiar pattern, which I hope will eventually lead to more transparent policy reform.'


An estimate of the number of mainland farmers who have had their land officially requisitioned for development