Wukan: a village living in fear following arrest of party chief
Some villagers sleep with gongs beside their beds so they can alert others to danger
The remote eastern Guangdong fishing village of Wukan might look peaceful on the surface but its residents are haunted by fear, especially when night falls.
That fear has led to the recent rise of the Wukan night-watchers, mostly young men on motorcycles, who guard important points and alleyways, such as those housing the family of the village’s detained Communist Party chief, Lin Zuluan.
It has also seen villagers go into exile or hiding, while others sleep with gongs beside their beds so they can alert other households to danger.
“I sleep with the lights on, it’s been three days since I have slept properly,” a 14-year-old girl from Wukan said.
“Some of my classmates even organise sleepovers due to fears special police might storm in at any minute to arrest people.”
Wukan made international headlines in 2011 when villagers, united in resistance to land seizures and corruption, won the right to direct elections for village leaders. However, the problems have not been solved, with villagers blaming inaction by higher-level governments for the lack of progress.
Lin, 70, was snatched from his home in the early hours of June 18 in what villagers described as an act of “thuggery”.
He had planned to give a speech the next day on a village petition urging upper-level governments to resolve its land problems, which have dragged on for years.
“At the beginning, people questioned why the elected government [led by Lin] failed to get their land back,” 29-year-old villager Cai Zhisheng said. “They are disappointed after everything they went through but it’s very difficult as it involves negotiations with higher-level government.”
Cai’s father Cai Lichou, one of Wukan’s two deputy party chiefs, was arrested nearly two weeks ago. The other deputy chief, Sun Wenliang, fled the village following the latest purge and remains in exile.
Thousands of other rural villages in China have experienced the same kind of stolen land and corruption problems as Wukan, but it broke new ground with the attention it generated in 2011, with observers hailing it as an example of grass-roots democracy at work on the mainland.
However, it also gave the village a reputation as a troublemaker, which prompted a harsh crackdown when villagers decided to launch another big protest last month.
Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan said earlier that instability in Wukan would pose a substantive threat to Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua’s career prospects ahead of the party’s 19th national congress next year, at which the central leadership is due to be reshuffled.
The authorities struggled to contain Wukan’s rebellion in 2011, but villagers found themselves battling a tougher and more sophisticated government response this time around, with the authorities deploying armoured vehicles equipped with tear gas, police with rifles and anti-riot gear and drones to monitor crowd movements.
Villagers said Lin’s arrest and “character assassination” paralysed their plans for a big protest, while a subsequent purge of other active players sent chills down the spines of sympathisers.
Lin’s arrest was followed by accusations from the authorities that he had pocketed large sums of bribes from village construction projects. Following the brief arrest of his 21-year-old grandson, Lin appeared in a televised confession on June 21.
On June 24, the Shanwei city government, which oversees Wukan, said it had obtained evidence proving Lin pocketed 80,000 yuan (HK$93,700) from a 420,000 yuan running track project at a local school.
Lin’s 68-year-old wife, Yang Zhen, said she was confident nothing bad would happen to him, even though the family’s attempts to hire a lawyer for Lin had been repeatedly blocked by Guangdong authorities.
“He has not taken a single dime of salary when serving as party secretary,” Yang said, adding that her husband even used money sent to them by their sons to help fund village committee operations.
Thousands of villagers staged more than two weeks of protests since Lin’s arrest, proclaiming his innocence and calling for his release.
“Lin is a simple, honest and hard-working man,” Cai said. “I believe every one in Wukan has a standard answer to prove his character. We don’t need the outside world to tell us what kind of man he is.”
A 35-year-old mother of a three-year-old girl said Lin was a “selfless man” and no one believed he would take a bribe.
“As his neighbours, we all know the thrifty lifestyle in Lin’s home ... he rides his bicycle to work day in and day out,” she said.
In an interview with Hong Kong-based Cable TV just days before his arrest, Lin said Wukan had been blocked, interfered with and besieged by higher-level governments when dealing with land issues.
“This includes dirty tricks, pressure and instigating cadres representing their interests to work against me,” he said.
Lin said Wukan had only succeeded in recovering about 1.3 sq km of collective land in the past five years, and that it had failed to recover another 4 sq km of land sold by the previous village government and 4.6 sq km of land involved in boundary disputes with neighbouring villages that had been promised to Wukan by the [county-level] Lufeng city government.
“They will crack down, arrest, use mean measures to handle me, but I’m fighting to win or die,” Lin said. “This is my hopeless choice.”