The Wukan incident was a long time in the making, a process that gradually unfolded over a course of close to three years. It began with villagers trying to gather evidence to support rumors that local officials were involved in an illegal land grab in this quaint fishing-farming community of 20,000 people on the eastern coast of Guangdong Province. From there it moved on to petitioning, protests, the death of a villager, the occupation of an entire village, a social media frenzy, the surprising retreat by provincial officials, a democratically-elected Village Committee and the fall of corrupt local party officials.
Although the Wukan story has not yet had a happy ending, the protests demonstrated the level of public anger against corruption, a resolute courage to challenge corrupt authorities and the willingness to take on risks and consequences.
The movement first began in 2009, when young villagers began organizing online. They investigated land deals and other dubious practices of their local officials, finding out that they had sold large chunks of the village’s 1,500 acres of land to developers for large amounts of money, pocketing the bulk of the income. Villagers started with the courts, moving from low-level county courts, up to provincial courts, and then petitioning government authorities. Some eleven court cases later, after failing to achieve any legal recourse, local citizens took the law into their own hands by taking to the streets.
The Wukan Incident erupted on September 21, 2011, when angry crowds estimated at 4,000 protested with banners, blocked roads, and destroyed a government office. Five villagers were detained by the police. The next day, protestors clashed with the police, who came with electric batons and teargas.
After the Wukan’s Party chief, Xue Chang, and the Village Committee head, Chen Shunyi, fled during the protests, villagers set up the Villagers’ Provisional Council on September 23 to negotiate with the authorities of both Lufeng, the county-level city where Wukan is located, and Shanwei, a prefectural-level city which has jurisdiction over Lufeng and Wukan. Both had jointly taken over the administration of Wukan.
With negotiations failing to accomplish anything, the Villagers’ Provisional Council called for a mass demonstration on November 21, with an estimated 5,000 people taking part. Local authorities acted with restraint and the protest did not escalate to violence this time.
Protests erupted again on December 3. A day later, Wukan residents launched three days of strikes and protests. Protesters managed to capture several village government leaders. They used these leaders as pawns to force the release of Zhuang Liehong, one of the young leaders of the movement who had been detained for organizing petitions. Later that day, the government released the hostages but Zhuang remained in custody.
On December 9, the Shanwei authorities announced that the land sale to the private developer had been frozen, albeit temporarily. They also outlawed the Villagers’ Provisional Council. And it was the same day that protest leader Xue Jinbo and a few other village representative were kidnapped by non-uniformed men in a van without license plates.
On the evening of December 11, Xue died while being held by the police. The police said the cause of death was “sudden heart failure,” but family members who saw the body said there were signs of torture on the body. Anger broke out in the village on the following day.
The authorities responded by sending thousands of police and People’s Armed Police to surround the village, blocking supplies and people from getting in and preventing local fishing boats from going to sea. The youth league established a de facto militia to guard the perimeter and keep the police out. Villagers built their own fortifications using felled trees and metal cables as a barricade to keep the police out. The Provisional Council then opened a pharmacy, a first-aid center and a “foreign office”. They also smuggled in supplies and foreign reporters into the village via little-used country roads, thwarting police efforts to keep the foreign media out.
Enraged villagers continued to demonstrate and express their anger while urging high-level Party officials to intercede on their behalf.
On December 17, protest leaders gave a list of demands to the authorities: return the land, release detained protest leaders, return the body of Xue Jinbo, and recognize the legitimacy of the Provisional Council. They gave the government five days to respond, vowing to march on the Lufeng government offices and threatening to take Xue’s remains by force. With food supplies dwindling to just seven days, protest leaders declined a government offer for talks, demanding that their basic demands be accepted first.
Rumors began to spread that police reinforcements would soon arrive. Just before midnight on December 19, Zheng Yanxiong, Shanwei Party secretary, issued a statement saying that the land deal would be renegotiated, villagers compensated, 404 acres of land returned (about 0.06 percent of the total area—6,700 acres—that he later revealed as having been sold), and that two village leaders who had fled, Xue Chang and Chen Shunyi, had been removed from their posts. However, while he said he would not prosecute most villagers, he stopped short of promising guarantees for the safety of protest leaders. Dissatisfied, villagers said they still planned to march on the Shanwei government office.
On December 20, provincial officials stepped in to take responsibility for the resolution of the dispute. Zhu Mingguo, Guangdong Province vice-secretary, guaranteed the safety of the protest leaders and promised that villagers charged with troublemaking would find “a way out” if they agreed to work with the government.
The following day, Lin Zuluan, a village representative and a leader of the protest movement, had a meeting with Zhu Mingguo to set up negotiations. The provincial leader agreed in principle to several of Lin’s key demands—village representatives were recognized as bona fide leaders, captured protest leaders would be set free and the body of Xue Jinbo would be returned to his family at an unspecified date.
Villagers took down their barricades and protest signs and life returned to normal.
Twenty local officials were punished after the investigation. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the previous Party chief of Wukan, Xue Chang, and former head of the Village Committee, Chen Shunyi, were kicked out of the party and told to give back close to $45,000 in illegal gains. The agency said five other former village officials and some dozen higher-level officials were also punished, but it gave no specific details. Zhu Mingguo, Guangdong Province vice-secretary, called these local officials “red apples,” hinting that they were red (Communist) on the outside, but rotten inside.
On February 2, 2012, a democratic election was held in Wukan, with two of the protest leaders elected to the Village Committee. Zhuang Liehong, a young man who was detained by police on December 3, 2011 and held for 20 days, was among those voted on to the new Village Committee. He promised to win back the land that he said “rightfully belongs to Wukan.”
The Wukan Incident was seen as a victory for people power and the power of the Internet and a precursor of things to come.
"Because people are better connected and better informed, you can sense
that there is more radical opposition to what's happening to them," Eva Pils, a specialist in land disputes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Asian Wall Street Journal. "It's also easier for this kind of protest to spread and far harder to isolate because information can still travel."
The Wukan uprising, however, has yet to have a happy ending.
Officials did not carry through with all of their promises. Officials tried to force Xue Jinbo’s family to sign a document confirming he had died of natural causes, which they refused to do. And officials in Lufeng later refused to drop charges against several villagers who were detained at the start of the protest.
In October 2012, Zhuang Liehong, frustrated in his attempts to get back lost land—apparently two-thirds has not yet been returned—and money, officially announced he was stepping down.
Paul Mooney (慕亦仁) is an American freelance journalist and has reported on China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since 1985. At various times, he has been on staff at Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the South China Morning Post. He has lived in Beijing since 1994.