The standoff last December between local authorities and villagers in Wukan, prompted by deep anger among villagers over corrupt land deals and the suspicious death of a protest leader in police custody, was one of the biggest stories of 2011. But the saga of Wukan, which is ongoing despite pledges by Guangdong’s top leadership to meet the demands of protesters, could continue to have an impact this year and beyond.
Some say the Wukan incident, an act of organized civil disobedience that infuriated local Party officials (and, no doubt, quite a few senior leaders as well), has established a “model” for villages facing seizure of their land, one of the most common causes of so-called “mass incidents” (群体事件) in the countryside and in areas outside developing cities. Some have cited Wukan as an example in calling for democratic reforms in China.
But even as international attention gradually shifts away from Wukan, it remains to be seen whether the villagers’ demands will ultimately be met — and whether provincial leaders will live up to their promises.
Discussion of Wukan continues inside China, but public discussion of its deeper implications is a sensitive matter.
A January 27 blog post on Wukan made by lawyer Yuan Yulai (袁裕来) to his blog on the Caixin Media platform was deleted by internet censors. Yuan followed up the same day by posting news of the deletion on Sina Weibo. Including an image file for the post (below), he wrote: “Is there no hope for the Wukan incident? Are leaders now setting the tone? (Why was this deleted? Is this still propaganda policy?)”
Yuan Yulai’s microblog post was also subsequently deleted. But the text-as-image file he posted on Sina Weibo, which we archived, is pasted below. In the file Yuan shares an account of words spoken by an unnamed senior leader at a recent meeting on stability preservation, the mobilization of domestic security forces to combat social unrest:
A certain leader said in an internal address at the CCP Work Conference on Politics, Law and Stability Preservation: Right now there are tens of thousands of mass incidents [in China each year], mostly happening in rural townships and villages and remote regions, the causes being principally economic. These are convenient for us to independently resolve or break up. But if these spread to coastal cities and are transformed into political demands, the result would be unimaginable. Some comrades lack a real sense of the dangers involved, thinking we are over-reacting. It would be better for a clear directive from the central authorities to over-react than to fall short [of what is needed].
. . . The Wukan incident is far from finished. Can challenges to the leadership status of the Chinese Communist Party evade retribution? That is a page we cannot open, that no one dares open.
The following is a partial translation of a review by journalist Chen Jibing (陈季冰) of the Wukan incident published in Outlook China magazine. Chen also posted the article to his weblog at QQ.com.
The Example of Wukan
Chen Jibing (陈季冰)
January 20, 2012
Ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday news came of the latest development in the Wukan story. According to news reports, three special work teams constituted by Guangdong province to explore the issues of collective land [use and appropriation in Wukan], village finances and breaches of law and Party discipline by village officials notified the villagers of Wukan of their findings in the initial phase [of their investigation] on December 30. According to Zeng Qingrong (曾庆荣), chairman of the standing committee of the Guangdong Provincial Commission of Discipline Inspection and deputy-head of the [provincial government’s] supervisory office, who is serving as head of the special work team on breaches of law and discipline [in the Wukan case], they have already found that Xue Chang (薛昌), Wukan’s former Party branch chief, former village Party committee director Chen Shunyi (陈舜意) and others did indeed violate [Party] discipline in misappropriating collective assets of the village; a related personnel member in the marketing division of the Cooperative Association of Lufeng City Rural Credit Cooperatives (陆丰市农村信用合作社) pocketed 200,000 yuan in the process of land transfer (土地转让); various personnel in the Donghai Township State Land Office (东海镇国土所) of the Lufeng City Land and Resources Bureau (陆丰市国土局) accepted bribes in processing the transfer of land belonging to Wukan Village. At the same time, it has been initially established that some cadres from the Wukan Village Party Branch and village committee received rewards in the process of authorizing transfer of collective land [belonging to the village], and that some accounting staff in Wukan village are suspected of having personally used public funds [belonging to the village]. The cashier for the village committee, Zou Chai (出纳邹钗), also a committee member of the Party branch, has already been detained pending investigation for discipline violations (两规).
It was not long before this, owing to the direct intervention of the provincial Party leadership in Guangdong, that serious protests in Wukan Village, in [Guangdong’s] Shanwei City, finally calmed down in late December. While for reasons known to all newspapers, television and other mass media kept quiet on this incident out of fear, it was the most hotly watched public opinion storm on China’s internet — and particularly on microblogs — for some time.
On December 21, deputy provincial Party secretary Zhu Mingguo (朱明国), who has represented Guangdong province in handling this incident, met face-to-face with the chief acting village representative, Lin Zuluan (林祖銮), and agreed to the principal demands of the protesting villagers, including: to suspend and fully investigate the property development project in which the villagers’ interests were harmed and for which village cadres and the government illegally sold [village] land; to carry out a full and comprehensive investigation of the death of protest leader Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) while in police custody on December 11, 2011, to return his remains, and to release several other villagers who were detained for their involvement in the protests.
What has most unprecedented meaning is that the [Guangdong provincial] authorities also formally acknowledged the “leadership committee” chosen and constituted by the villagers themselves for the purpose of the protests, and that they pledged resolutely that they would not seek to settle scores with villagers involved in the protests at some convenient later date (秋后算账).
[Village representative] Lin Zuluan at least believes that their protest movement has already achieved the things they set out to achieve, and he has told media that he is satisfied with the outcome. “The higher-level government [authorities] have treated this matter with utmost priority, so I have all confidence that we can satisfactorily resolve this dispute,” [he said].
The attitude of the Guangdong Party leadership set the tone for the handling of the incident: “The basic demand of the people of Wukan Village in Lufeng City is fairness, and errors certainly did exist in the work among the masses carried out by the grassroots Party leadership and government, so certain unreasonable actions on the part of the villagers can be understood.” Moreover, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang (汪洋) pointed out clearly that, “The occurrence of the Wukan incident was both a matter of chance and a matter of necessity. This is the result of paying insufficient attention . . . to tensions building up in the process of economic and social development, and it is a necessary result of our being ‘hard on one hand and soft on the other’ (一手硬一手软).” This hard on the one hand and soft on the other points clearly to the government’s active promotion of economic development while it has been soft on social management (社会管理).
On December 22, the People’s Daily ran an article called, “What does the ‘turnaround in Wukan’ clue us in to?” (“乌坎转机”提示我们什么), which called on governments at all levels [in China] to “eliminate the ‘oppositional stance’ in dealing with the masses” (扫除面对群众的‘对手思维’). The article said: “Looking back on many mass incidents over the past few years and assessing their basic character, [one realizes that] the vast majority arise from the fact that the masses, in response to appeals on behalf of their vested interests, have received no satisfaction or relief. This tells us that local government must have a keen awareness of prevailing conditions in facing the interest demands of the masses, even if these involve tension and conflict.”
Zhu Mingguo, who has personally handled this incident, subsequently stated that the villagers of Wukan Village raised two demands in particular. The first concerned the question of land. Wukan Village has 9,000 mu [or 6 square kilometers] of land, and now more than 6,700 mu [or 4.46 kilometers, 75 percent of the total] have been sold, leaving just over 2,000 [mu [or 25 percent of the original land]. But the villagers have not been transformed into city residents [of Lufeng City], nor has the issue of basic living allowances from the city been resolved [CHECK]. The demands of the villagers are reasonable. The second issue raised by the villagers was that the affairs of the village were not handled openly. They said that village cadres were corrupt, and that they were not consulted over the issue of land sales. “The villagers said to me that under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party they had farmed the land without paying taxes and also enjoyed subsidies and free education. We do no oppose the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party is good! What we oppose is the village selling the land without telling us,” [said Zhu Mingguo]. Zhu Mingguo added: “If these demands had been satisfied earlier, would this matter have built up to such an extent?”
I’m confident there is a great deal of truth to these words. But the heart of the problem is the question of how the ruling Party and government can create a system for themselves in which they must resolve demands of this kind. Perhaps there is nothing better than external pressure to bring people to their senses, and competition offers the best instruction. [CHECK]
The so-called “Wukan incident” originated back in March 2011, at which point the villagers, who had suffered in silence for more than a decade, finally united in action. It is alleged that after local officials were involved in one particular corrupt land deal, furious villagers assaulted the village Party branch, and in the three months that followed numerous conflicts erupted.
The incident suddenly escalated in mid-December. On December 13, 42-year-old Xue Jinbo — who according to some accounts was 43 years old — one of several representatives chosen by Wukan villagers, died of heart failure while in [police] custody. Official media denied that wounds were present on Xue Jinbo’s body, [a claim made by Wukan villagers]. Reports said that on December 10 fellow detainees reported that Xue Jinbo was in a poor condition, and Xue Jinbo was then dispatched immediately to a nearby hospital, where he died after 30 minutes of emergency treatment. Reports also said that Xue Jinbo had a history of asthma and heart disease. [According to the reports], certification issued by forensic specialists at Guangzhou’s Sun-Yatsen Hospital shows that Xue Jinbo had no clear visible external wounds aside from bruising on his knees and wrists. The reports quoted the deputy director of this [forensic] center as saying that in his estimate the bruises on Xue Jinbo’s wrists had been caused by handcuffs, and that the bruises on his knees had been caused by kneeling on the ground.
Xue Jinbo and two others were detained on December 9, the justification being that they they were charged with destroying public financial affairs and jeopardizing public affairs. According to statements by local police, Xue Jinbo had led the unrest in Wukan due to tensions over land, [village] finances and issues with local election of [village] officials. At the time, [said police], he and other villagers had forced their way into the local government office and police station, and had destroyed six police vehicles. Police claim that these accusations were confirmed in two interrogations on September 9 and 10.
Xue Jinbo’s family has come to the conclusion that he was beaten to death. It is said that Xue Jinbo’s mother, wife and older brother went to view his body and discovered numerous wounds and bruises, including three points where his bones had been broken.
The anger of villagers then ignited and they openly opposed the local government. They organized large-scale demonstrations, and after cadres from the village Party branch and village committee deserted the village, they organized the village to govern itself, even setting up barricades and organizing hundreds of armed deputies to prevent violent suppression by police.
On December 15, acting Shanwei mayor Wu Zili (吴紫骊) gave a harshly worded denunciation [of the villagers]. He traced the incident back to two villagers who had been chosen to represent the villagers in negotiating with the government, Lin Zulian (林祖恋) and Yang Semao (杨色茂). He vowed to strike out firmly against “those principal figures who had planned and organized the inciting of villagers to smash and destroy public property, impede public affairs and other illegal and criminal activities.” He urged these people to turn themselves in. In a video appearing online on December 18, Shanwei Party Secretary Zheng Yanxiong (郑雁雄) harshly accused the villagers for using foreign media to invite the attention of the outside world to this local situation. Zheng Yanxiong said that the villagers had not sought the government but had instead sought out “rotten” foreign media, and “these media will only be happy when our socialist nation is broken and divided.”
These statements roused even greater feeling among the opposing [villagers]. After the above-mentioned language by Wu Zili, 8,000 of the villagers in a village with a total population of 20,000 again held demonstrations, the numbers double that of the previous day.
In fact, the full story of the Wukan incident is not all that complicated. When villagers attacked the offices of the village Party branch back in September last year, they accused the [local] government of selling off agricultural land in the village to a development company for a price as high as one billion yuan, and without providing villagers with reasonable compensation — and after [the transaction] pocketing 70 percent of the income [from the sale] for themselves.
As for the full and accurate situation in Wukan, perhaps we will have to wait patiently for the results of an independent and credible investigation. But cases like this of conflicts over interests emerging as a result of land appropriations (征地) are something that can be found everywhere in China today. According to research by Chinese Academy of Social Science professor Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), this sort of dispute over land accounts for two-thirds of all of all “mass incidents” in the countryside. Yu Jianrong estimates that since 1990 local officials in China have forcibly taken farmland totaling 6.72 million hectares, and owing to the gap between the actual market value of land and the amount of compensation for land actually given to farmers, [Yu estimates that] farmers have [collectively] lost around 2 trillion yuan (US$316 billion) in rights and benefits.
While the central Party leadership has said again and again that it will take concerted action against illegal land use, and has created new regulations prohibiting forced land seizures, demanding that farmers be compensated according to market value . . . and in fact this year’s No. 1 Document (一号文件) points out clearly that the portion of income from land appreciation given to farmers needs to be raised, all of these measures have met with fierce opposition from local governments. This is because at present the normal operations of local governments rely to a high-degree on so-called “land financing” (土地财政). According to a report released by the National Audit Office of the PRC in June , local government debt nationally in China reached 10.7 trillion yuan, and of this 2.5 trillion yuan (or 23 percent) was guaranteed (担保) by land sales. By contrast, the estimate of total land sales income for local governments nationwide in 2010 was 2.9 trillion yuan. Which is to say that total income from land sales by local governments in 2010 is probably only sufficient to pay back the debt that will come due for the next few years.
All of this means that if the current trends do not change, standoffs like that at Wukan will most likely only increase steadily.