Wukan in Guangdong province was a sleepy fishing village of 13,000 people, little known until 2011 when villagers took to the streets in a stand against government corruption. The protests led local authorities to grant Wukan democratic elections, a groundbreaking event in China that made global headlines. Lin Zuluan, the protest leader at the time, would become the elected village chief, both a traditional and semi-official position. However, the process left a long list of corrupt political casualties. It seems now, five years later, retribution for these long standing grievances is coming back for Lin.
Lin was sentenced to 37 months in jail earlier this September on bribery charges. He was accused of accepting RMB440,000 ($66,000) in bribes relating to construction projects in Wukan and another RMB150,000 in kickbacks on behalf of the entire village committee, according to Southcn.com, a provincial online portal. Lin confessed to the charges in the tightly secured trial where a one kilometer security perimeter was cordoned off and guarded by police dogs; no parties unrelated to the case were allowed into the court building, and non-essential personnel were given the day off. Locals say Lin’s confession was forced and politically motivated – not unusual in Mainland Chinese trials.
Violent protests erupted on September 13, after a dawn raid by local authorities rounded up 13 people in Wukan. They were charged with illegal assembly and using threats to force others to protest in the aftermath of Lin’s sentencing.
Up to 1,000 police officers equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets were then deployed after the dawn raids last week. They were searching for six suspects close to Lin, including a number of his family members. The police faced off against protesting villagers armed with broken bricks and little else. Unconfirmed reports say more than 100 villagers have been arrested; some have reported police using live ammunition on protesters and also the death of an elderly woman in her 80s, caused by rubber bullets. Paramilitary police have been going from door to door searching houses for suspects. Authorities have offered RMB10,000 ($1,500) cash reward offered for tip offs on the six suspects.
The village is under lock down with many fearing to leave their homes. Officials have blocked visitors and food supplies from entering into Wukan forcing resident villagers to sneak across to neighboring villages to obtain food supplies.
To stem the news of Wukan spreading, authorities have actively expelled the many local and foreign journalists who streamed into the surrounding areas since the sentencing of Lin. Five Beijing-accredited Hong Kong journalists were detained inside private residences where they were conducting an interview. A group of officials broke into the house and accused them of stealing. They were taken back to the nearby Lufeng police station where they were questioned and accused of “illegal reporting,” despite their official accreditations. Two were reportedly coerced into signing confession letters stating they would not return to report on Wukan. All were taken to the Hong Kong border and released.
Internet users who have shared news about Wukan have also been detained. A mother from Zhuhai, some 350 km away, was summoned by neighboring Shenzhen police authorities. When she reported to the police station, she was jailed without trial for 13 days for sharing a digital article on Wukan by Voice of America on Wechat, a Chinese social media network. Her husband was then told by the police not to take any interviews with foreign media, or else he too would be jailed. In spite of all this, the governor of Guangdong has denied that there is a crackdown when questioned at a press conference on cross-border collaboration with Hong Kong officials.
Wukan has yet again become a testing ground for the central Chinese government. It is highlighting the deficiencies in not only China’s human rights record, but also brings into question the level of coordination between often corrupt municipal authorities and national authorities. Wukan village is once again receiving too much global media attention, and that means the central government is forced to deftly deal with what should be a local government issue. While Lin has already been sentenced, more heads will roll in the coming months.