The Chinese Democratic Experiment that Never Was
by David Wertime / September 14, 2016 / ChinaFile
Protesters in southern China are up in arms. They feel that Beijing’s promises that they’d be able to vote for their own local leaders have been honored in the breach. They’re outraged at the show of force in the face of peaceful protest, and confronted with superior government might, they are using the power of numbers and the reach of social media to make their voices heard.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking the above to be a description of Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests in October 2014 and a subsequent independence movement have captured global attention. But it also depicts Wukan, a small mainland Chinese village about a three and-a-half-hour drive east of the former British colony. In December 2011, it became a global symbol for a new style of Chinese governance when a citizen uprising against illegal land seizures and a brief exercise in self-rule during a police blockade elicited promises of village-level democratization from Beijing. Now citizen unrest is making headlines once again.
The latest round of unrest began after erstwhile protest leader Lin Zulian, who had governed as popularly elected village secretary since 2012, was detained on a June evening. Shortly before, Lin had pledged renewed demonstrations calling for restitution for improper land grabs. Western media described “tensions” growing thereafter; on June 18, public security in Lufeng, the municipality that contains Wukan, issued an official order calling on villagers not to let “illegal elements” imperil the village’s “hard-won stability.” On September 8, the verdict came down: Lin was sentenced to 37 months in prison and a fine of about U.S.$30,000 for bribery and kickbacks totaling about U.S.$88,000; he has pledged not to appeal. (Although Lin confessed to receiving kickbacks, many Wukan residents told NPR they thought it was staged.)
On September 13, after what appear to have been days of street-level protests in Wukan, riot police descended on the village of about 13,000, arresting 13 onsuspicions of disturbing public order, a charge commonly used against protesters in China. Photos circulated on social media also claim to show villagers injured by police; one widely-shared video depicts armored forces retreating under a hail of debris from angry citizens.
Wukan’s villagers may be heartened to know their concerns have become international news, but their likely aim is China’s domestic audience, which is far better positioned to put lasting pressure on Beijing. Predictably, China’s government has reacted with an information blockade. State media mentions of the septuagenarian Lin have been brief; stripped of context that might help viewers understood what he originally stood for, they sound like just another news item about a corrupt local cadre. Social media dispatches from the village have been censored for months. And police have threatenedto investigate and punish Internet users who spread “false information” about Wukan.
That means that most mainland Chinese have likely not heard much, or any, recent scuttlebutt about Wukan, leaving it to social media users to hunt for anything they can find. “The watermelon seed-eating masses probably really don’t know” the full story, quipped one user on Weibo. “Not many people understand what’s really going on,” wrote another, “but everyone can feel what the authorities are doing in the pit of their stomachs.”
Weibo commenters on Wukan have been largely unsparing toward their central government. “Truly, the wisdom of the leaders isn’t something the grassroots can understand. It’s easier and more efficient to arrest the person who pointed out the problem than to solve the problem,” wrote one. Another fumed that “the biggest landlords are the Chinese Communist Party and corrupt businesspeople like Wang Jianlin,” a billionaire developer who has been an outspoken advocate for Beijing’s policies. Read more…