The boat was waterlogged and barely moved despite the fisherman’s best efforts. We wondered how long the journey would take. The man was probably not used to having passengers on board, let alone two fidgety foreigners trying hard not to look out of place. We pulled our hoodies over our heads and slumped as far down in our seats as we could. Water soaked through our socks, our jeans. Neither of us said a thing.
We had just been kicked out of Wukan, a fishing village in southern China, and were desperately trying to sneak our way back in. And yet a day earlier, Village Chief Lin Zuluan had welcomed us with warm handshakes and a big smile. He wanted to show us Fengtian Farm – a large piece of land that had, for years, been out of bounds to local villagers. It was communal property, but Wukan’s former leaders had sold it illegally to a businessman from Hong Kong, pocketing large profits for themselves.
Anger over Fengtian Farm and other tracts of stolen village land helped trigger a historic uprising in Wukan in late 2011, but problems had existed long before then. For four decades, a small group of people wielded control over the community. They ran the Village Committee, rigging elections every three years to ensure that power was only concentrated within their circle.
The uprising caught the world’s attention and made international headlines. Not only did the villagers succeed in ousting their corrupt leaders, they also won approval from provincial authorities to hold democratic elections. The new Village Committee declared the start of a new era for Wukan and vowed to right the wrongs of the past. For many of their supporters, this meant getting back their lost land.
But it was a complicated process, one mired in red tape, lengthy lawsuits and corruption at the county level. On the first anniversary of the uprising, we filmed protestors berating the Chief and his team for failing to do as they had promised. When were they getting the land back? It was a far cry from the adulation and applause that greeted the Committee’s election victory just six months earlier.
This was why repossessing Fengtian Farm was such a big deal for the Chief. It was a chance for him to show the villagers that their trust in him was not misplaced. But if the Chief expected gratitude, it never materialised. Instead, there was anger and dismay.
Fengtian’s previous occupants were not happy about being evicted, and they did all they could to make their feelings known. Villagers who went to inspect the farm found rubbish-strewn buildings with smashed windows, hacked floors and destroyed staircases. An overwhelming stench permeated the property – piles of faeces had been dumped everywhere. Uprooted trees and rubble made the area look like a disaster zone. It was ugly, and for the villagers, one insult too many.
As word spread, the outrage grew. That afternoon, scores of protestors blocked a major road just outside Fengtian Farm. They demanded compensation for damage done to the property. Hundreds of riot police arrived to disperse the crowd, but the villagers refused to budge.
The next morning, protestors gathered outside the Village Committee. They strung up white banners and called on the Chief to quit. The gesture was deeply insulting – white is a colour normally associated with death.
The Chief declared that he was stepping down. As he walked away from the jeering crowd, he turned and saw James approaching. Viewers who watched ‘Wukan: After the Uprising’ will recall that this was where the series ended.
“Stop filming!” The Chief shouted.
We were told to leave shortly after.
At noon, our phones started to beep. It was Zhang Jianxing, Wukan’s resident photographer and citizen journalist.
“Where are you?”
We were eating lunch in a nearby town, biding our time before attempting to return to the village. But Jianxing had other ideas.
“Come back soon.”
It would prove difficult. As our taxi approached the main road leading to Wukan, we saw that police had set up a checkpoint. They were turning people away from the area. We knew it would be impossible for us to get through the cordon.
“You can go to Shanghai Village and pay a fisherman to row you there,” the driver told us.
And this was how we found ourselves in a waterlogged boat, slowly inching our way towards Wukan. By the time we got there, the worst was over. Villagers shook their heads as they approached us with accusing eyes.
“Where were you when the police moved in?”
They arrested four protestors that day. The local rag-and-bone man was badly hurt – the villagers said police attacked him as he was bending down to pick up a plastic bottle. They thought he was planning to use it as a weapon.
“They would not have been so violent in front of foreigners,” the villagers lamented. “Where were you?”
If we were to pinpoint a time when things really started changing at the Village Committee, it would be during the Fengtian fiasco. The Chief seemed a harder man afterwards. In subsequent meetings, he never mentioned the time he threw us out of the village. He also never discussed land issues with us again. Instead, he spoke about how it was important to maintain stability within the community.
Other Committee members also became more distant. Jianxing’s brother Jiancheng, whom we’d followed closely for more than a year, seemed increasingly reluctant to see us. When we managed to sit him down for an interview, he was fidgety and his answers sounded rehearsed and stilted.
What on earth was going on? We only learnt the truth months later.
In late December 2013, former Village Committee member Zhuang Liehong warned us that a crackdown was imminent. He believed things would become unbearable for activists who had led Wukan’s uprising. A few weeks later, Liehong and his wife left for a dream holiday in the United States. They never returned.
In February 2014, news broke that three members of Wukan’s disgraced former Village Committee had been appointed to key positions in the local Communist Party. These were the same people ousted for corruption in 2011. They had laid low for a while, but were now back in positions of power. This was possible because of the way grassroots politics is run in China. Wukan’s Village Committee might be democratically elected, but ordinary people don’t get to decide who sits on the local Communist Party.
Then came the arrests. Deputy Chief Yang Semao was taken in first. He had been a vocal critic of the Chief and had announced plans to run against him in upcoming elections. Semao spent two days in lock-up before being released on bail. Second Deputy Chief Hong Ruichao was detained soon after. Both men were accused of accepting bribes.
It was very late by the time we arrived at Ruichao’s house. The rain came down hard that night. We were glad to accept the little cups of hot tea his family offered up. We were not surprised to find Semao in the house. He looked exceptionally calm for someone facing a possible jail sentence.
Everyone insisted Ruichao was innocent. They agreed he had taken money from a local businessman, but said he returned every last cent the minute he felt something was wrong.
We asked Semao about the charges leveled against him. He told us a villager had given him 20,000 yuan. It was apparently a ‘gift’ from a person who preferred to remain anonymous. He said he donated half of it to the local school and told the villager to return the other half.
“If they want to find me guilty for corruption because of this, there’s nothing I can do.”
Just before the elections in 2014, we went to see the Chief. He whipped out a stack of documents almost as soon as we sat down, and proceeded to lay them out on his living room floor. Smiling, he told us to take our time going through the papers.
“Evidence!” The Chief exclaimed.
There were handwritten confessions, some dating back to as early as 2012. It appeared that a few members of the Village Committee were indeed corrupt.
Within the pile, we also discovered a copy of a receipt – Semao wasn’t lying when he said he had given 10,000 yuan to the local school. Did this mean he wasn’t guilty?
Where does the truth lie? We have our theories but will leave it to viewers to decide.
In the end, what is clear is that the Village Committee proved a disappointment to those who voted them in. The land issue remains largely unresolved, and there is the corruption scandal. Yet at the elections in 2012, there was so much hope, so much idealism and so many plans.
In truth, democracy was never given a chance to properly flourish in Wukan. The Village Committee was hindered at every step of the way – by county officials eager to protect their own interests, by a system that wasn’t easy for novice politicians to navigate, by institutions above and around them that were fundamentally non-transparent and undemocratic, by fellow villagers too impatient for justice.
Jiancheng once used a Chinese saying to describe his work: “Like trying to cross a river by feeling for stones.”
Over the years we’ve watched as he and his fellow Committee members flail and stumble in their bid to navigate the currents. Some have fallen. One person gave up. Others chose to go with the tide.
‘Wukan: Hope and Reality’, premieres today on Al Jazeera English. Episode one is a condensed version of our earlier series, ‘Wukan: After the Uprising‘, which also aired on Al Jazeera English. Episode two charts charts the months leading up to the 2014 elections.