The Spirit of Wukan: Can a small farming town’s remarkable protest against corrupt officials spread across China?
Peasants do not have a good record facing off with the Communist Party. Rural standoffs usually end with the arrest of the ringleaders and an increased security presence for the remaining residents. Yet on Thursday afternoon, Dec. 22, residents of the embattled village of Wukan scored a major achievement in their 11-day stand-off with local government, securing the release of one of the village’s three detained leaders; the other two were released today.
On Wednesday, a deputy party secretary of Guangdong Province arrived to negotiate with village leaders, promising to grant all of their initial demands: release of three elected representatives of Wukan who were detained two weeks ago; return of the body of Xue Jinbo, a village leader who died in police custody; and direct negotiations with the temporary committee, a interim governing body chosen by villagers, whose members were earlier denounced by the government as criminals. “It is totally unprecedented that a high-level official will come to talk with protesting farmers,” one activist who came to witness events told me on Tuesday night.
In September, residents of Wukan accused local officials of embezzling more than $110 million dollars of money owed to them for selling more than 80 percent of the villager’s arable land to developers, and marched on the county seat. Significantly, compared with the tens of thousands of other protests that happen across China each year, local officials fled Wukan on Dec. 11, leaving the town in the hands of the village community. Their success puts them in a risky position, as the Wukanese have challenged not just the local authorities but a basic assumption behind Communist Party rule: that the Chinese people, and especially the rural masses, need authoritarian rule to prevent the country from descending into chaos. Ten days into life without police or party officials, Wukan was almost peaceful — save for the array of police forces that surrounded the town. Still, the gumption of the Wukanese may be a new model for activism in communities across China.
After initial destruction of property at local government offices, Wukan’s temporary committee announced this to be a nonviolent protest. The deserted police station is still locked and intact, as are the houses of local elites and families of officials, most of whom have left the village. Villagers refrained from looting and instead focused on bringing food into the village through back roads, away from security forces that massed outside. They coordinated mass rallies, making protest signs, and cooked for the hordes of journalists who descended on the village.