Protests of Wukan

Wukan is a coastal village located in Guangdong province, southeast China. Wukan breeds about 13000 people or 2600 households. As other rural areas in China, Wukan is poor and less developed, compared to coastal cities. Therefore, villagers, who usually graduate from middle schools, are ready to leave their hometown for modern cities in search of jobs and opportunities. Others who live and stay in Wukan either work in local businesses, such as running a grocery store or a restaurant, or work as farmers or fishermen. Land is an essential part of peasant’s assets in China. In Wukan, most households own land inherited from their ancestors. Land owners usually use their land for domestic or business purposes. In addition to private ownership, much more land is owned collectively by the Wukan people as a whole. The communal land should be managed by the Village Committee (VC), which, according to Organic Law of Village Committees, is a “primary mass organization of self-government” (Article II) in village level in China. The “primary organization of Communist Party of China in the countryside” works with the VC. All members of the VC shall be elected directly by all eligible villagers, according to the Organic Law (Article XI). Members of the party’s primary organization are elected by village’s party members, which is around one hundred.

Even though it has not been clearly stated de jure, party secretary (head of the party’s primary organization) wields much more power than village chief (chairman of the VC) de facto. It is not a secret that local elections are largely rigged. In many places, most villagers are either neglectful of such behaviors or unaware of their rights to vote. This fact may make it more believable that Wukan’s former party secretary, Xue Chang, stayed in power for 41 years before ousted by villagers in late 2011 – the same duration as Gadaffi.

Xue and his subordinates, including the former village chief Chen Shunyi, bluntly manipulated Wukan’s elections for more than four decades and used their power to sell collective land without informing Wukan’s 13000 villagers whom the land belongs to. Xue and his associates make huge profits from illegal land sales while Wukan people are gradually deprived of their ancestors’ land. Villagers had been writing letters to city-level and provincial government since 2009 but received no proper response. A huge petition demonstration broke out in September 21, 2011 when thousands of villagers walked out on the street and marched to Lufeng city government, demanding investigations of Xue and his associates and retrieval of their lost land. The mayor responded that he would return justice to Wukan “as soon as possible” but he lied. Villagers have heard nothing substantial from the government thereafter. The next day, armed police entered the village and attacked some villagers. Villagers fought back and ejected the police eventually (The government and official newspaper henceforth accused the villagers of attacking the police and damaging official goods). Without any news from the above, Wukan villagers elected a “Temporary Council Committee” as villagers’ representatives to lead this protest and communicate with government officials.

There was a second petition demonstration exactly two months later. The November 21 demonstration was similar to the one in September, but there was no government official standing out this time. Villagers left peacefully later. On December 9, four temporary village representatives were “kidnapped” by plainclothes police, according to those who were near; one of them, Xue Jinbo, was found dead in custody two days later. Villagers were terrified and outraged, but remained unbowed. They began to gather at the village opera stage and waved banners accusing the government of corruption and murder. The self-organized “Wukan interior security team” set up road blocks to prevent any plainclothes police or suspicious persons from entering the village. The hostility between local government and Wukan did not cease until senior provincial officials intervened in the dispute and acknowledged villagers’ basic demands, which include the return of the Xue Jinbo’s body; release of the three detained temporary representatives; direct negotiations with the temporary committee, whose members were denounced by the local government as criminals. The enduring protest and petition ended for the moment.