Dream has been killed in China’s democracy village

Apparent victory of villagers in Wukan in 2012 has since given way to systematic repression by authorities in Guangdong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 9:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 4:10pm

Five years ago, Wukan went from a remote fishing village to an inspirational model for grass-roots democracy, but that hope has since withered in the face of iron-fisted repression.

Watch: Five years on, Wukan in turmoil again

Analysts said the latest development in the saga, which saw nine Wukan protestors sentenced to up to 10 years in prison each, has marked the end for the village as a symbol of hope.

“I’ve never seen anyone being sentenced to 10 years just for illegal gathering or protesting. This is the most severe sentence I have heard in my entire legal career,” said veteran Guangzhou-based lawyer Sui Muqing.

His comments came after the Haifeng county court in eastern Guangdong handed down sentences to nine Wukan residents who have been jailed from between two and 10 years for disturbing public order, staging illegal demonstrations, disturbing traffic and intentionally spreading false information.

Sources close to the family of former village chief Lin Zuluan say police cars are still guarding Lin’s house in Wukan, and that the verdicts for the nine have set blood boiling among local residents.

“The atmosphere in the village is very tense. Villagers are ready to proceed with an appeal,” said the source, who refused to be named.

Harsh sentences for Wukan protesters could backfire

But any attempt to appeal, like other appeals by dissidents, is likely to go nowhere. Lin has reportedly already been sent to Yangjiang prison to serve his 37-month sentence for graft, which he had previously sought to appeal to no avail.

Unrest began to simmer in Wukan in June, when Lin announced he would give a speech addressing the villagers’ plan to start a petition over land problems that had remained unresolved since 2011.

Instead, Lin was secretly taken away from his house the night before his speech and jailed. Angry villagers unleashed a new wave of unrest that saw police use tear gas and rubber bullets in September.

Five years ago, Wukan gained international attention after months of defiant riots had dissolved the village government and led to transparent elections to name their own village management committee and chief.

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However, what looked like a victory in 2011 and 2012 to the villagers in Wukan was only the beginning of a slow-cooked strategy of retaliation, which Sui described as a classic example of how the Communist Party handles unrest.

“The retaliation had already begun in 2014, two years before Lin was jailed, when elected village committee members like Hong Ruichao were being locked up one by one,” Sui said.

The harsh handling of Wukan also reflected an urgent need to maintain social stability amid a party power shuffle that could have affected the career of Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, said Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan.

“The party boss of Guangdong has been trained as the next leader so he needs to deliver a good performance or at least remain relevant in order to qualify for promotion,” Zhang said.

“Much like [former president] Hu Jintao during his time in Tibet, when he displayed a hardliner image to impress Deng Xiaoping, Hu [Chunhua] is going a similar route here,” Zhang said.

However, Guangxi-based lawyer Yu Pinjian said an iron-fisted approach could not prevent another Wukan from happening.

“A harsh political clampdown is temporary, as it can’t stop social advancement and people’s desire to live in a lawful and just society.”