Harsh sentences for Wukan protesters could backfire

The core of the issue is land rights and until this is properly addressed, there is a risk of either more demonstrations or an even harsher crackdown

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 2:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 2:46am

Because of repeated clashes with authority, the remote eastern Guangdong fishing village of Wukan has become identified with land-rights issues on the mainland. Wukan came to prominence in 2011 with images of police lines confronting villagers protesting against local officials over alleged official bribery and illegal land grabs. This led to intervention by the provincial government to end the stand-off. The subsequent introduction of historic free elections for village leaders was supposed to result in more control over their own affairs.

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It was hoped that in this way Wukan would become a model for resolving land disputes that have plagued national development. Sadly it has not turned out like that. Progress in recovering land for unfairly dispossessed owners has been slow. Villagers claim land grabs have continued. The detention of elected Communist Party village secretary Lin Zuluan for alleged corruption was the catalyst for violent protests. They resulted in the re-emergence in September of familiar images – riot police bearing shields in the background of violent protests.

The outcome was not as promising as in 2011-12. The authorities took nine protesters to the People’s Court in Haifeng county where they were sentenced to jail for up to 10 years for disrupting public order, starting illegal demonstrations, disturbing traffic and spreading false information.

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The longer sentences are harsh, even if they are intended as a warning to others against similar demonstrations. Given the villagers’ history of resistance to what they see as injustice, there is always a risk the sentences will backfire in the form of more civil disobedience, or that officials could feel compelled to take even tougher action.

This is not a sustainable solution. Wukan is a textbook reminder of how change of land use for national development has become a source of corruption through collusion between officials, local governments and developers. Regrettably, this will be hard to stamp out until cash-strapped local governments get a greater share of tax receipts, or another revenue source.