‘Young Enthusiasts’ Guide Chinese Village in Groundbreaking Protests

December 21, 2011 Updated: December 31, 2011
Villagers hold banners during a protest rally in Wukan, Guangdong Province
Villagers hold banners during a protest rally in Wukan, Guangdong Province, on Dec. 19, as they demand central authorities take action over illegal land grabs and the death of a local leader in custody. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In an effort to stand up to local Communist Party officials, a group of young activists have harnessed the Internet and initiated innovative, peaceful protests in the small village of Wukan in southern China. These activists are gambling they can succeed, where so many village protests have failed, by waging a media savvy campaign that attempts to play the central Communist Party off against the local officials.

According to a recent account of the movement’s growth, based on interviews with participants by the Hong Kong weekly magazine iSun Affairs, a group of young residents created an Internet group on the QQ interactive chatting service, named The Wukan Young Enthusiasts, and began talking online about the expropriation of land in their village that has been going on since 1993. They planned to settle land disputes, remove officials who had been in charge of the village Party committee for 40 years, and elect their own representatives.

The young enthusiasts initially tried to work within the system. They petitioned 14 different Party organs in Guangdong Province over one dozen times between June 21, 2009 and March 14, 2011, but to no avail. Upon finding the system unresponsive, they recruited the whole village to join them in rejecting the local Communist Party officials.

Protest, Election, and Response

Their first mass protest was on Sept. 21 and ended in a violent clash with the police, after 5,000 residents responded to a call for a village meeting. But the clash also paralyzed the local Party committee and gave the villagers a chance to have an election of their own on Sept. 29. They successfully elected 13 new representatives and formed a new temporary village committee, effectively replacing the Communist Party in administering the affairs of the village.

With the elections, the effort initiated by the young enthusiasts was taken up across the generations, with middle-aged and elderly villagers assuming key roles as representatives.

After the confrontation with police and the election, Lufeng municipal authorities asked the villagers to send their own representatives to communicate with higher officials, and even paid a total of 2,000 yuan (US$315) in wages for two months to each representative, a gesture that acknowledged the villagers’ elected representatives.

However, communicating with Lufeng municipal authorities for two months proved to be a futile effort. On Nov. 21, the villagers staged another mass, yet peaceful protest in front of the Lufeng municipal government building.

The protest on Nov. 21 was something almost unprecedented in communist China—villagers peacefully resisting Communist Party officials under the direction of their own elected officials.

The norm for village protests in China has featured violent, large, usually spontaneous crowds, who often smash government offices and overturn police vehicles. China is rocked by over 100,000 such mass incidents annually.

Wukan villagers prepare ribbons for a planned protest march
Villagers prepare ribbons for a planned protest march in the village of Wukan on Dec. 20. The village of around 13,000 inhabitants accuse local officials of stealing communal land without compensating them with anger boiling over with the death in police custody of a village leader tasked with negotiating with authorities over the row. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Something similar to the events in Wukan happened in Taishi Village, also in Guangdong Province, in 2005. Villagers, also outraged by having their land sold out from under them, ousted the local officials, replacing them through a village election. Taishi was suppressed by the use of riot police, the arrests of individual villagers and their lawyer Guo Feixiong, and the harassment of members of the press.

In December Lufeng municipal authorities began pushing back against the villagers in Wukan and started to claim that the new village committee was illegal—despite previously giving it de facto recognition—and began arresting some of the elected representatives.

One of those arrested, Xue Jinbo, the vice chairman of the new village committee, died in police custody on Dec. 11. His family said his body showed signs of torture.

On Dec. 14, the village was surrounded by paramilitary forces.

The villagers, worried that authorities might make more arrests, organized to protect themselves. The young enthusiasts—most of whom are not identified by name in the iSun Affairs report, to protect their identities—played an important role in maintaining order in the village, setting up security cameras near village representatives homes, patrolling the village with walkie-talkies, and staying on the alert to the movements of security forces.

Looking for Support

The villagers are looking for support from beyond Lufeng.

The young enthusiasts have kept not only the Wukan villagers but also the rest of the world posted, constantly sending messages to microblogs and Internet forums, producing their own documentary films, and even writing a theme song for their cause, according to iSun Affairs.

A makeshift media center has helped the villagers stay connected with the rest of the world: the only resident with broadband Internet service in the village has opened his home to foreign journalists stationed in Wukan.

The villagers are appealing to Beijing and the Communist Party against the local officials. Village representatives have told U.K. media that they love the Party and are expecting to find justice from Beijing.

In their protests, villagers held slogans that read “return our lands,” “punish corruption,” “oppose dictatorship,” “give human rights back to us,” as well as “embrace the Communist Party.”

Hong Kong media has said the Wukan villagers are carrying the red flag to oppose the red flag—using their support for communism to oppose communism.

Mr. Lin, a 67-year-old village representative told iSun Affairs the villagers have always adopted a strategy of “not taking extreme measures, being rational, presenting the facts, and observing strict discipline.”

But, no matter how the villagers try to be disciplined, the example of Wukan points beyond itself. In a Dec. 18 report in the Hong Kong paper Mingpao, one village representative said so, as he called for free elections at all levels of government across China and hoped Wukan’s free election can set an example for other villages.