January 23, 2009, the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper published its coveted list of “national civilized villages,” selected on a three-year basis by the Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress. These were villages that had, according to the commission, shown strong leadership, done “solid and effective work,” “maintained social order and stability,” and provided quality social services. From the thousands of villages in China’s southern province of Guangdong, just 25 were chosen for this exceptionally rare honour. Among them was Wukan, an unknown fishing village on the outskirts of Lufeng, a small but growing city on the province’s central coast.
Three years later, as the selection process for the next raft of “national civilized villages” was no doubt kicking into high gear, protests erupted in civilised Wukan, exposing local anger over dirty land deals that had long festered beneath the surface. The uprising, stemming from the death in police custody of a popular village leader, quickly became global news as villagers erected barricades against armed police equipped with tear gas and water cannons. Wukan became a village under siege.
In fact, isolated protests over corrupt land deals had already begun in Wukan in 2009, the year it was honoured as a “national civilized village.” What, one must ask, was this “solid and effective work” being done by Wukan’s Communist Party leaders, who had fled the village in the early hours of the 2011 protest movement?
Was civilized Wukan nothing more than a cynical deception?
Months later, after the protests gave way to negotiations with provincial officials on the principles of “fairness and openness,” and after democratic elections were held for a new village committee, there emerged another myth of civilized Wukan.
Wukan was a model this time not of “sound and effective work” or solid social services, but of conflict resolution in a China plagued by social tensions at the grass roots, particularly over the thorny issue of land reclamation and appropriation.
“The Wukan incident has again confirmed that democracy and supervision are effective weapons in controlling and preventing corruption,” said an editorial in the People’s Daily almost three years to the day from its hailing of civilized Wukan.
“The chief cause of the corruption occurring in Wukan was the lack of democracy and supervision. The lesson from this is that we must fully preserve as the core the exercise of democratic and supervisory rights by villagers, solidly advancing democratic management and democratic politics in the countryside.”
Wukan seemed to be an illustration, moreover, of the responsiveness of the Party leadership. But few asked the tougher questions about this supposed new paradigm of civilised governance at the village level — not least how such a civilized village could resolve its thorny land issues as an uncivilised and hostile Communist Party bureaucracy loomed overhead.
The news cycle moved on. Villagers returned to their fishing boats. Wukan was forgotten.
But Wukan’s troubles, it seems, never ceased. Earlier this year, as the village’s democratically elected leader, Lin Zuluan, called for renewed meetings over still-unresolved land disputes, he was detained and charged with abuse of power and accepting bribes. Protests broke out afresh, with villagers professing Lin’s innocence even as his alleged confession was aired on national television.
“We villagers don’t believe it,” one woman told National Public Radio, “because in our hearts, we think of Lin Zuluan as a good party secretary.”
Lin Zuluan’s awkward and halting confession, of a piece with other apparently forced public confessions by lawyers and human rights activists in recent years, raised serious questions about the motives behind his arrest. This looked suspiciously like yet another attempt to reign in political activism under a hardline Chinese president who blacklisted such topics as “civil society” and “constitutional democracy” in 2013, during the first year of his administration.
Was this the proverbial “settling of accounts after the autumn harvest” (秋后算账)? Were these the ripened yet bitter fruits of Wukan’s democratic revolution?
In recent days, a true settling of accounts has come to the village of Wukan. Tensions have spilled into open conflict, with video circulating online of villagers hurling bricks at tight rows of armed police. Thousands of police have reportedly pushed into the village, placing it under lockdown and arresting scores of villagers.
A new myth of Wukan is emerging. In fact, says the Global Times newspaper, while “a majority of Wukan villagers have calmed down,” a troublemaking minority, urged on by “foreign media,” are “unscrupulously inciting, planning, and directing chaos.” This is a familiar theme, in which calls for democracy, transparency or even basic fairness, are a great deception perpetrated by “foreign forces” hoping to uncivilize China and drag it down into darkness.
For Xi Jinping, the Wukan model is a dangerous precedent that must be not just crushed but discredited. This time, it is Wukan’s failed experiment in engagement and democracy that will be mythologised, and Lin Zuluan’s shame that will be paraded before the public.
Only China’s Party leadership has a rightful claim to the civilized. This much was clear in the official news release last week on Lin Zuluan’s conviction and sentencing to three years in prison:
In his final remarks, the defendant Lin Zuluan expressed his deepest repentance, thanking judicial officers for their civilised and fair handling of his case.