We first heard about Wukan late last year. “China’s rebel village,” the headlines screamed. Newspapers showed pictures of angry protestors rising up against what they perceived was an unjust system. In demonstration after demonstration, they accused local officials of corruption and illegal land grabs, of enriching themselves at the expense of the very people they’d pledged to serve. The villagers of Wukan had had enough, it seemed. They wanted accountability and transparency. They wanted their old leaders out.
Back then, we were busy with “Storm in Subic Bay” and “Camera” and could only follow the news from a distance. We read about the mysterious death of activist, Xue Jinbo, and marvelled at how the protestors refused to be cowed. And as the standoff continued, we scoured the net for photos and footage from Wukan.
The images are startling, not just because of the size of the demonstrations, or the fearlessness in the villagers’ eyes, but because of what we now know – that despite intimidation from the police and the threat of violence, the protestors refused to back down. In the end, they won. On March 3 this year, Wukan held elections to choose a new village council. This time, we were able to make it there to witness the vote.
The place was crawling with journalists, security officers and petitioners from other villagers hoping to learn from Wukan’s success. Activists who had led the protests, found to their dismay, that they had far less freedom than when the old council was in charge. Everywhere they went, cameras would follow, and so would a string of plainclothes police. It felt like a bizarre comedy. The activists reacted with grace and good humour though. One even decided to make the best of the situation. Village photographer Zhang Jianxing told the officer trailing him to come out of the shadows and do something useful instead. Perhaps drive Zhang around town? A deal was struck.
Still, it was frustrating for us. The police had a simple strategy. They’d given up keeping tabs on the media – there were just too many of us – and switched to sticking close to key villagers instead. So while it was easy to film generic election shots and talk to random voters, spending quality time with the activists was near impossible. They were constantly on the move, their mobile numbers always changing. We would begin a conversation, only to have someone whisk our interviewee away, doors slammed in our faces.
It’s not hard to understand the paranoia. Wukan’s experience is unprecedented in modern-day China. How did a fishing community manage to oust its state-backed leaders and win the right to vote in democratic elections? If we were interested in finding out, so were plenty of aggrieved villagers across the country.
China is grappling with the adverse impact of rapid industrialisation. Millions of farmers complain that they’ve been mistreated by corrupt officials and affected by illegal land grabs. In the week leading up to the March 3 elections, dozens found their way to Wukan. Some had traveled hundreds of miles, clinging on to nothing more than a flimsy notion that they would somehow be able to use the event to publicise their own problems. They handed out petitions, attempted to talk to foreign journalists and sought out Wukan’s more prominent activists for advice. Two elderly women even threatened to self-immolate, in a bid to draw attention to their plight. They were eventually deported.
Two days after the elections, Wukan was finally quiet. As the madness subsided, the freshly installed village council held their first meeting. Few reporters covered the story that day. Perhaps their assignment ended with the elections. But for the council, the work had only just begun. Top on their list – reclaiming the land the village had lost. Everyone agreed it wasn’t going to be easy. They all promised to do their best.
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