Wukan villagers protesting against the activities of local officials in a dispute over land last year © AFP
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Zhang Jiancheng was a rebel with a cause. His detention with four other protesters in December sparked a stand-off in the southern Chinese village of Wukan, where 13,000 people faced down police in an 11-day siege.

After the provincial Guangdong government intervened in March and promised free elections, Mr Zhang, 26, was elected to the village committee. But after only six months in office, he is worried.

His committee, seen by some as a blueprint for a gradual move towards democracy in China, is being criticised by locals who say land sold to developers by a corrupt former village chief – allegations that sparked the original protests – has yet to be returned.

“The difference between their expectations and the reality is very high. Sometimes we feel like slaves,” complains Mr Zhang, sitting in the school playground where the vote for the committee was held.

The elections are seen by many to have been simply a tool to defuse anger, rather than a genuine step towards democracy. So, a year after their first major protest, Wukan’s frustrated villagers are again considering action. Even Mr Zhang’s younger brother supports fresh demonstrations, scheduled to start on Friday, as a way to prompt the Guangdong government to intervene.

Wang Yang, the Guangdong party chief who is a candidate to join China’s top decision-making body this year, said after last year’s protests that Wukan was an example of what happened when citizens felt ignored by officials. For others, the events in Wukan – when the villagers created their own administration and briefly stood outside the state’s control – became a symbol of what a more democratic China could look like. The protests also sparked copycat action.

Cai Yifeng, a local restaurant owner, says the problem is that the Lufeng city government, which oversees Wukan, has not changed its ways. He says several of its officials are allied with Xue Chang, the former Wukan party chief. Mr Xue was fined and disciplined this year for his role in the illegal land sales but not arrested, which village leaders say has emboldened his supporters.

“The Lufeng government tells lies to the committee,” Mr Cai says. “The dissatisfaction among the villagers will only continue to rise.”

Six months after the new Wukan committee took over, it has been unable to get the Lufeng government to clarify which land belongs to the villagers. The Guangdong government has tried to sweeten the mood in Wukan by promising new roads, a port and a school library.

Hong Ruichao, 27, the vice-director of the village committee and former protest leader, concedes that the main issue remains the return of land. Little more than 600 acres have been returned of more than 3,200 that the villagers allege was sold illegally.

A fiery villager stormed into Mr Hong’s office late one night last week to vent his anger about the stalemate and the Communist party. “If all the villagers in China did what Wukan did, the party could not afford to compensate farmers for the land,” says the man, who only gives his name as Zhang.

Wukan is just one example of issues which provoke mass protests in China. When the next generation of Chinese leaders takes over this year, they will have to deal with problems from land to environmental protests.

The irate villager says China’s new leaders will have to deal with widespread disaffection or find “a way to shift attention by fighting a war in the South China Sea” to focus the anger of the Chinese people elsewhere. He argues that another demonstration in Wukan would be the fastest way to resolve the land dispute.

But Mr Hong, who says he hears these complaints repeatedly, argues for patience, saying the villagers should give their nascent democracy a chance to work.

“The new village committee has worked for only six months. A demonstration is a gamble,” Mr Hong says. “We could lose everything we have achieved.”

Get alerts on Chinese society when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article