‘Wukan,’ Once a Byword For Chinese Democracy, Now Censored

Protests Against Land Grabs That Led to Electoral Experiment Are Pertinent Five Years Later

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian for ChinaFile

A fishing village in southern Guangdong province, once a standard-bearer for small-time democracy in China, has now become a political disaster—and the most-censored term on Chinese social media.

In September 2011, amid protests over land sales in the village of Wukan, residents closed off roads leading in to the village and expelled local governing officials. Police laid siege as residents stockpiled food. Villagers conspicuously proclaimed their loyalty to the ruling Communist Party during the protest, indicating that they were not rebelling against it, but asking for its intervention. In what is sometimes called the “Wukan model” for handling dissent, the dispute was eventually resolved when the provincial Party Secretary negotiated with the villagers, granting them the right to elect a local leader.

The sudden detention of that democratically-elected leader, Wukan Communist Party Secretary Lin Zulian, has mobilized Wukan residents to protest once again, and has kicked China’s massive online censorship apparatus into high gear. Some time in mid-June, Lin posted a letter to his account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, announcing his intent to organize a mass demonstration protesting further illegal land sales, a practice endemic in China in which local governments seize land, often held by small farmers, for lucrative resale to commercial ventures.

But days later, on Friday, June 17, dozens of police cars arrived in Wukan; Lin was detained early the next morning. Law enforcement authorities in Lufeng City, which oversees Wukan, released a statement that Lin was suspected of taking bribes. Local residents claim there’s been another land grab, and many felt the allegations were a cover for silencing Lin. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, 400 police faced off with villagers for several hours on June 18. On June 19, thousands of residents marched to the slogan “Return our secretary,” according to one resident’s interview with The New York Times.

As often happens during protests, Wukan residents soon took to the Internet. They posted videos and pictures of the village surrounded by police, and shared images of recovered surveillance video of Lin being taken away in the middle of the night. But in what has become a common tale pitting netizens against China’s increasingly controlled web, many posts were quickly taken down in a swift flurry of censorship. On June 19 and 20, “Wukan” and “villagers” were the most censored terms on Weibo, according to censorship tracker Weiboscope, operated by the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. Lin’s account is now deactivated. After the extensive elimination of Wukan-related posts and comments, only a few news stories from certain media and updates from government accounts are still available on Weibo. In an open letter published online by the local police department, villagers have been asked to cooperate with Lin’s investigation and to avoid “extreme actions.”

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