21 October 2016
Wukan residents have been staging protests after their village chief Lin Zuluan, who has been fighting land grabs by corrupt officials, was taken into custody by Chinese authorities. Photo: Reuters
Wukan residents have been staging protests after their village chief Lin Zuluan, who has been fighting land grabs by corrupt officials, was taken into custody by Chinese authorities. Photo: Reuters

The lesson of the Wukan village uprising

Wukan village in China’s Guangdong province grabbed international headlines in 2011 when its residents, under the leadership of Lin Zuluan, a former communist party stalwart, expelled corrupt party officials and took control of their village.

Recently, however, Lin and his grandson were taken away from their home at midnight by armed policemen on a charge of accepting bribes. Lin has been kept in custody.

Lin’s detention triggered a backlash from the villagers, many of whom believe their chief was taken into custody because he was scheduled to lead them to the county government headquarters on June 21 to protest against the illegal confiscation of villagers’ land by corrupt party officials.

The villagers firmly believe that Lin is innocent and that authorities are trying to frame him on false charges, punishing him for having led an uprising five years ago.

For days on end Wukan villagers have rallied to the defense of Lin by staging massive sit-ins.

As Lin was paraded on TV on June 21, purportedly confessing to corruption, it has only fueled the anger of the villagers further.

Suspecting that Lin was forced into a false confession, the villagers said that they won’t give up their fight until Lin is released and the corrupt officials who seized the villagers’ land are brought to book. 

The Wukan incident is not an isolated case in China.

In recent years tens of thousands of rural peasants in basically every province across the country have been rising against their local authorities who illegally seized their land in collusion with real-estate developers.

Under President Xi Jinping’s doctrine of “stability comes first”, many of the protests against social injustice staged by peasants were brutally suppressed.

According to the constitution of the People’s Republic, farmland in rural areas across the country is owned collectively by peasants.

Unfortunately, in reality, basically all of the land in rural areas is controlled by high-ranking party officials, many of whom have made a fortune by selling the land to developers against the will of villagers.

As a result, forced evictions or relocations due to land seizures are taking place across China. Due to a media blackout imposed by the party, the vast majority of the incidents go unnoticed.

In 2011, the Wukan uprising could have ended in bloodshed, like many other protests staged by rural villagers across the country, had it not been for former president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, who adopted a relatively moderate stance on civil rights movements among society.

The then party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, and governor Wang Huahua, both of whom were relatively open-minded leaders, also played a pivotal role in facilitating the peaceful ending of the 2011 Wukan uprising.

However, when Lin and his fellow villagers continued to fight for their land ownership rights through protests and petitions after 2012, the communist authorities were no longer tolerant of their action.

It is because under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping, national stability and the consolidation of communist rule is deemed important above everything else.

On the orders of “Emperor Xi”, law enforcement agencies across the country have been mounting a massive crackdown on civil rights activists and social critics, including rural peasants who protested against the seizure of their land. Many of them were arrested, jailed, or even killed.

Before he was arrested, Lin Zuluan appeared to have sensed the change of political atmosphere in the country.

During an interview he gave to Hong Kong reporters before he was taken away, Lin said he was facing imminent danger of being detained and smeared.

To bring him down, authorities will go to any lengths and would be “playing very dirty”, he said.

Government corruption is so deeply-rooted and institutionalized in the rural parts of China that it has almost become an open secret that seizing peasants’ land and selling it at a premium to developers has become a major source of income for local authorities across the country.

In a country like China where there is no judicial independence whatsoever and the law is just a mere tool employed by the dictator to rule more effectively, the average individual is bound to be at the receiving end of the tyranny and oppression of a regime which won’t hesitate to use violence against its own people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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