Land and democracy in China and Hong Kong –Wukan revisited


Robin Lee

In recent weeks global attention was once again drawn to the continuing plight and struggles of villagers in Wukan, a fishing village in Guangdong province located only a few hours away from Hong Kong. In mid-September authorities violently cracked down on villagers who had been protesting against the arrest of village chief, Lin Zuluan, on abuse of power and bribery charges. Prior to his detention, Lin had been about to renew calls for protests and meetings and to petition higher authorities about village land disputes which still remained unresolved. Many villagers believed that he was innocent, his detention was politically motivated and his confession forced.


Villagers had therefore been holding daily protests in support of Lin, following his arrest in June, calling for his release. In the week following his conviction and sentencing to three years imprisonment on 8th September, however, pre-dawn raids carried out by police to arrest some of the demonstrators led to the eruption of violence with riot police storming into the village and using tea gas and rubber bullets, resulting in the suppression of the protests and further arrests.


Wukan is a village where, in 2011, mass resistance by the villagers to the same illegal land seizures had, following an initially violent struggle which saw villagers face off with riot police, the death of one of the villagers’ representatives, Xin Jinbo, in police custody, escalated and led to the Communist Party’s temporary loss of control of the village. This was not, as had often been the case, ultimately ended through violent crackdown, however, but with a partial (temporary) victory for the villagers, with the authorities releasing detained villagers, promising to address their complaints, and agreeing to allow villagers to hold democratic elections for a new village committee. It was in these elections, held in early 2012, that Lin Zuluan, one of the representatives that had played a prominent role during the protests, was elected by the villagers as head of the village committee.


These events, known as the ‘Siege of Wukan’, and the subsequent elections gave rise to hope of a so called ‘Wukan model’ for democratic reform that some hoped might have the potential to be replicated throughout China. Although at the time, the very particular situation in Wukan, including the mass scale widely reported on grassroots resistance, which led to the villagers winning the right to hold democratic elections, would also most likely to have needed to have been replicated for Wukan to have become a model for elsewhere, the incident was at least temporarily hailed as a positive example of democracy. A People’s Daily editorial previously reportedly stated that, “The Wukan incident has again confirmed that democracy and supervision are effective weapons in controlling and preventing corruption”[1].


Nevertheless, despite such expressions, it was not long before the limits of the ‘Wukan model’ and its democracy became apparent. In 2014, prior to new elections being held in the village, two former deputy village chiefs, Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao were detained and charged with bribery. Another former protest leader, Zhuang Liehong, had also fled to the US to seek asylum, while others also faced harassment from the authorities. Moreover, the issue of the illegal land grabbing, which had first led to the villagers’ protests, continued to remain largely unresolved. In addition, similar new land sales that have been carried out by the higher level Lufeng city government without the knowledge or approval of Lin and the Wukan village committee have also since then been reported[2]. Notions of democracy, it would seem, were not conducive to the continuation of the self-enrichment of those with political power.


At the same time, in addition to these earlier failures, the conviction of Lin and the recent repression can then be viewed as representing a very definitive end to a degree of tolerance by authorities towards protest and democracy of this kind, which goes to fully and completely discredit any notions of an earlier Wukan model, with the aim of stamping out dissent. It is interesting that the Global Times (a Communist Party newspaper) in an article commenting on Wukan from June this year, argued that “disputes over property rights cannot be solved merely through democratic means” and that “If the drastic actions of the Wukan villagers are adopted by other people involved in disputes, China will see mess and disturbance at a grass-roots level. This jeopardizes the common interests of Chinese society”. The commentary concludes by suggesting that only the law is suitable for resolving such disputes[3]. This therefore seems to stand in contrast to the earlier comments by the People’s Daily which in praising the example of Wukan hailed the importance of democracy, including for anti-corruption. Such a change in tone can be considered in line with the more general hard line towards grassroots activism across wider Chinese society, and also officials from rival factions[4], which has been observed since Xi Jinping came to power.


Especially in view of this apparent change in mood and with, as the Global Times also observes in the same article, land disputes continuing to be a very common problem affecting villagers in China, that the regime has also become more concerned about Wukan style activism is perhaps unsurprising. According to a 2012 Renmin University survey conducted across 17 provinces, 43% of farmers reported having suffered from land grabs.[5]  Many are the result of local officials seizing land to sell to developers, sometimes resulting in huge profits while villagers are displaced, often receiving little compensation. Such land grabs have been the cause of a rising number of large protests across the country.


Another issue to reflect on is how, since the 2011 struggle in Wukan first became widely reported on, frequent comparisons have been made to the situation in Hong Kong, both concerning implications for democracy and land struggles. Following the elections of the village committee in 2012, online observers noted that these elections could actually be considered more democratic than the elections for Hong Kong Chief Executive, highlighting Hong Kong’s own democratic deficit. Then, at the time of Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement in 2014, another commentator while noting that little had changed in reality in Wukan following its elections, drew on some of the similarities between Wukan and Hong Kong to speculate that the response by the authorities might be closer to that of Wukan than witnessed in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, writing that, “If the protesters win any concessions at all, we’ll have seen in Hong Kong a limited triumph of the Wukan model of restraint and dialogue”[6] Nevertheless, while the Hong Kong protests ultimately were not brutally repressed they were subsequently cleared by the authorities, without the protesters winning any concessions.


More recently, Hong Kongers in following the repression of the movement and the final stamping out of any illusion of democracy in Wukan, have expressed concern which has been embodied in the statement, “Today Wukan, Tomorrow Hong Kong” or even “Today Wukan, Today Hong Kong”[7]. Although there are very important differences in form and degree– indeed Hong Kong’s comparative, albeit reducing, greater space for freedom of expression has sometimes aided in drawing global attention to rights violations, repression and various forms of grassroots struggles in the mainland and been of concern to the Chinese regime – people in Hong Kong and people in mainland China do face common and related concerns.


Not only are both affected by the various twists and turns of the Communist Party, Hong Kong is also similarly faced with land problems. In Hong Kong collusion between major property developers and the government has resulted in projects which have meant forced clearances of village and, (despite an existing huge shortage) community farmland. Many of these are white elephant projects aimed at creating huge profits for the developers.  Growing concern about this issue, alongside lack of democratic accountability, is perhaps reflected in the recent landslide election to the LegCo of Eddie Chu Hoi-Dick, a prominent environmental and social activist and founder of the Land Justice League who has been very active in campaigns in support of the rights of local villagers threatened by such large-scale development projects.


Faced with such common concerns, struggles for rights and against political and economic injustices are a reason for cross-border unity between people in mainland China and people in Hong Kong.

[1] Cited in: The Civilised Village, David Bandurski, 15th September 2016.

[2] China: Hopes for democracy crushed in the rebel village of Wukan, Reuters, 1st July 2016,

[3] Solving Wukan case needs authority of law, Global Times, 20th June 2016,

[4] In another interesting turn, Zhu Mingguo, the former Guangdong provincial CPPCC chairperson, who has previously been credited with peacefully resolving the 2011 Wukan protests, was later expelled from the Communist Party and was earlier this year prosecuted on corruption charges.


[6] As you watch Hong Kong remember Wukan, Ankit Panda, October 8th 2014.

[7]烏坎維權到官商鄉黑勾結, 柳奈奈,

對「Land and democracy in China and Hong Kong –Wukan revisited」的想法

  1. Why China oppose and oppress democratic movement with brute force and all over the globe people r not reacting? No protest?