Rachel Wang

Setback for Chinese Democracy: Why Protest Leader Admits He “Regrets” Taking Charge of Wukan

A man in Wukan rides past an announcement for a new construction project in June, 2012. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

“I am afraid when the phone rings, afraid of seeing people, and afraid of hearing the door bell. Why? Because I can neither stand nor sit; can’t say yes or no; can’t speak the truth nor tell lies. It’s hard to say anything.“

These words are not from dissidents, but Lin Zulian (commonly referred to by his former name, Lin Zuluan), who led the southern Chinese village of Wukan in a 2011 anti-government uprising and is now the town’s democratically elected leader. That uprising, a grassroots response to the local government’s selling off land without giving villagers proper compensation, has given way to what many have seen as a bold democratic experiment in Communist China. One of the goals of a democratic village government was to recover the land villagers had lost. But according to Dragon Television, Shanghai’s provincial television station, Wukan is now facing serious difficulties.

A history of setbacks

Some of Wukan’s problems are not news. In September, 2012, several Western media outlets revisited Wukan and reported on the slow progress of its democratic experiment. Then, areas of dissatisfaction included villagers’ “expectations gap” between the promise of democracy and its messy reality, meddling by county-level governments, and suspicions that the whole enterprise was simply a political move by Wang Yang, the former Guangdong province Communist Party chief who was known to eye a seat on China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee.

Additional obstacles have now begun to emerge. Wukan is dealing with a dearth of outside investment due to concerns over its political stability, a village leadership that lacks governing experience, and in-fighting within the village administration itself. As one villager told a reporter, “All of Wukan is dissatisfied. First, we villagers overthrew the corrupt officials, but the new administration has done nothing [to get land back]; they got nothing back and have not given us an answer…We’ll take anything [at this point].”

Surveying unbought luxury residences whose bare porches had begun to sprout grass, reporter Jin Song concluded that “currently many investors do not dare to invest in Wukan…because there is still no consensus about whether to lease the recovered land or to transfer it, the village committee is unable to monetize it.”

Meanwhile, infighting is worsening between elected village leaders and those activists left on the outside. According to Yang Semao, deputy director of the governing village committee, “The village committee only has seven people…, [but] there are dozens of influential activists and it’s impossible for everyone to join the committee. Now they’re going all out to attack, defame, and stymie us.”

Lin feels the same way. He told a reporter, “Recently I have been under way too much pressure; some irrational villagers are making trouble in village committee.” Lin accused them of “provoking and instigating” in order to “overthrow” the new committee. This has already affected committee members. Zhang Jiancheng, who was responsible for land resources and public security, resigned on January 29. Even Lin has felt compelled to to install cameras at home out of family safety concerns.

When asked whether he regretted leading the 2011 protest, Lin said, “I think I do regret it now. My personal interests were not at stake in that protest, and neither are they now. Why should I have gotten involved? … Why did I go looking for trouble?”

Besides the in-fighting, the committee is also facing confusion about how to translate wishes for villager autonomy into real terms. As Zhang said, “Our democracy is still in its infancy … For example, when our Villagers’ Oversight Committee was first established, no one knew how much power it had and it was always having conflicts with our village Party branch and village committee.” Lin appeared to be on the verge of giving up, saying he looks forward to having a young and capable leader take over.

The importance of central power

Since its February 13 posting on the official Sina Video Account and on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter,  this video has caused wide discussion on the Chinese Web. While a minority—mostly apparent Maoists—have argued that democracy is simply wrong, a plurality of comments call for time and patience, stressing that more permanent and systemic changes will be necessary before Wukan’s fragile democratic experiment can succeed. To them, Wukan’s hardship is neither accidental nor surprising, but instead a reflection of deeper problems rooted in Chinese political practices and the ambiguous and subtle relationship between grassroots initiatives and top-down policies.

A man reads a public announcement from the town government on the process of reclaiming land that was illegally sold by the previous local government of Wukan. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

In China, Wukan’s democratic election model may not be able to survive without support from the central government. @朱启臻, a professor from China Agricultural University, wrote: “In China, no group can survive and develop without the central government’s support. Wukan protested, [but] authorities are very likely to ‘wait-and-see’, with some [hoping for failure].”

User @复旦陈云, an associate Professor of School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, commented: “After the [1978] Xiaogangcun incident [where a village in Anhui province secretly experimented with ending China’s disastrous collective land policy], the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Party Central Committee gave it validation and promotion. However, after the Wukan protest, there was no related …promotion, and this is the source of Wukan’s isolation problem. ”

Such comments are not mere Communist boilerplate. In the recent history of Chinese political reform, almost all successful bottom-up efforts enjoyed final approval from the central government. As Prof. Chen pointed out, Xiaogangcun began as a dangerous experiment, but was ultimately promoted as a model nationwide. This incident is seen as the beginning of China’s decades’ long policy of Reform and Opening. But the stars had aligned for Xiaogangcun; in the 1970s, central authorities were eager to reform the Chinese economy and move past the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the reform was economic in nature and did not threat the dominant position and leadership of the Communist Party.

Wukan is a bit different. As @清溪渔夫 commented: “The trouble facing Wukan is that it is a political experiment, which the government seemingly compromises [on] but secretly opposes.” @小木a加个V吧 noted that political reforms must proceed differently: “The differences between Wukan and Xiaogangcun is this: economic reform is bottom-up, while political reform is top-down.”

Politics, or business?

But the political and economic eventually converge. While the Wukan protest two years ago ignited hope and debate both home and abroad about Chinese democracy, the fever, at least in Wukan, appears to have cooled. Both villagers and netizens are focusing on more practical issues – investment and property rights.

Some doubt whether democracy was ever the core issue. @吕新雨12, a professor of journalism at Fudan University, wrote: “Wukan’s true problem is the capitalization of rural land, but media hyped it as a democracy question and ignored the real issue. The village committee does not have the ability to solve this problem. The development of urbanization is the root cause. And that is why such land conflicts are so intensive in Guangdong.”

The combination of business and political power has long been a common way of doing business in China. Wukan, already freighted with symbolic baggage, is trying to become an exception to this rule. Both politicians and businesses are as yet unaccustomed to this new model.

Weibo user @胡说习惯 praised the spirit of Wukan’s reforms, but ultimately concluded: “It’s hard to make [the Wukan reforms] long-lasting. The investment environment has been damaged, which means the market is not in favor of this small scale political climate. Capital is always chasing power, and democratic election weaken this power.”

Viewed from this perspective, elections and democracy are not a singular solution, but a tool. User @玻璃罐子里的苍蝇 echoed this view, writing, “What Wukan villagers really want is money. Using democracy to solve the Wukan problem sounds great, but actually it is not the right prescription … Wukan’s follow-ups are reflections of the embarrassing situation of democracy in China. Democracy is still a luxury for us, just someone’s talking point. ”

1 Comment
Jump To Comments

Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").
  • minami

    Great article–thanks for writing this!