Looking Back at Wukan: A Skirmish over the Rules of Rule

Wukan is a village in Lufeng County in the Chaoshan region of Guangdong. It has a population of about ten thousand and an area of just over ten square kilometers, including a harbor. Since the 1980s, Guangdong has consistently been at the front lines of China’s capitalist reforms. In this torrent of commercialization, the villagers of Wukan have displayed an extraordinary skill in seizing the opportunity. The septuagenarian village party secretary, Xue Chang, held office for many years and transformed Wukan into a prosperous town through aquaculture, selling village land and attracting capital from Hong Kong, in the process also drawing in numerous migrant workers from inland China. The village committee invested large sums in improving roads and basic hydropower infrastructure, and they built sizable public parks, earning the national honor of “advanced village” status. Over the past decade or so, villagers have gone out one after another to start businesses in the garment industry, all of this contributing to the formation of a large group of well-off families.

But within class society, the wealth of some implies the poverty of others. Some villagers from Wukan became bosses, but most were fated to be mere employees, or else they were able to start only small businesses with limited prospects. Xue Chang and Chen Wenqing, a well-known Hong Kong businessman born in Wukan, cooperated to exploit real estate, set up businesses and fill the coffers of the village committee, leaving behind industrial pollution and rumors of corruption. Contrary to expectations, Party Secretary Xue was amiable and approachable. He used traditional Chinese medicine techniques passed down through his family to provide free treatment for fellow villagers, insisted on living in his family’s old, unadorned house, and sometimes even received major leaders with his trousers rolled up to put on a show of being a true peasant. Among his children, some followed him into government, while others went into business. The crucial point, however, was this: The village committee had been selling land for twenty years, and it had simply never given out dividends to the villagers.[1] Regardless of the exact cause, the fact is that the villagers in Wukan had been dissatisfied for a long time. They were resentful of Xue Chang, but showing their anger was out of the question. This reflected the spirit of the times: money before all else.

The Events

A few years prior, the seat of the Lufeng county government was moved to a location five kilometers from Wukan. This caused a rapid increase in property values in the surrounding area, attracting the villagers’ attention. Meanwhile, the new generation of small shopkeepers and managers, who had left the village to seek their livelihood, had by now adapted to market competition. They had much greater appetites than their parents’ generation and didn’t fear the accompanying risks, so long as these could be converted into a sufficient amount of cash. Beginning in 2009, villagers running small businesses formed the backbone of a group that began to link up many of the young people in Wukan, attempting to seek an audience with higher-ups any way they could in order to request an investigation into the village committee’s fraudulent land sales. They worked fervently for two years, but saw no results.

In the summer of 2011, rumors of a new real estate development began to stir up broader sections of the villagers. According to the rumors, “hundreds of millions” were going to be paid for the requisitioned land. The people were furious, thinking, “They’re selling our land again and we won’t see any of the money, just like before!” In the 1990s, the land in Wukan had been cheap. In periods of need, some villagers had leased out their farmland and residential plots, so nowadays the younger generation is faced with difficulty when trying to build a house. Many of these young people who had gone out to try to make their fortunes ended up wandering from place to place just to make ends meeting, and gradually they came to feel that there was really no hope of escaping poverty in that way. Others with more substantial family resources had a bit more success, and they fixed their eyes on the real estate held under purview of the village committee, plotting a way to exploit it. It was at this time that the general mood in Wukan began to change.

On September 21st, more than a thousand villagers went to the Lufeng county seat to seek an audience. The three focal points of their protest were the corrupt village committee elections, the reckless land sales and the opaque village finances. They ultimately obtained a meeting with the county leadership. On that same day, a hundred people stormed several Hong Kong-invested enterprises in the village, vandalizing them and smashing equipment. On the 22nd, police were sent into the village, where they clashed with residents, resulting in a number of injuries on both sides. On that same day, a group of Hong Kong journalists got into the village and began to report the events in detail. In no time, many of the mainstream Western media outlets were jumping on the news. In the days that followed, with clans as the basic units,[2] the villagers elected over a hundred representatives and set up a managing council, with a local retired businessman named Lin Zuluan acting as advisor. Lin Zuluan was a member of the Communist Party, astute and eloquent, of the same generation as Xue Chang. He had served in the military, acted as the deputy director of the village committee, and once been appointed to manage a Lufeng County special development zone. But in the ‘90s he had left his position and settled down at home. Some of his children entered government, while others managed the family business.

On September 26th, a government task force was sent into the village. On September 28th, Xue Chang was re-elected as representative to the County People’s Congress, and the election process was again suspected of being blatantly illegal, arousing intense discontent among the villagers. On November 1st, Xue Chang was removed from his post in the CCP. On November 19th, the county leadership met with the management council elected by the villagers for a dialogue and promised certain concessions, even agreeing to pay the council for their expenses. But the protesting villagers and their leaders were still not satisfied. They decided to “shut down production and trade.” On November 21st, over a thousand villagers again went to the Lufeng county seat to seek an audience, receiving extensive coverage in the Western media. On December 9th, the police announced a crackdown on the committee elected by the villagers, arresting the deputy director Xue Jinbo, along with several of the more zealous supporters. Xue Jinbo was a middle-aged man, and throughout all this he had been running around doing business. When he was seized, he was out dining with a client. On December 11th, he died in police custody.

On December 12th, at a mass rally of cadres in Lufeng, the deputy party secretary of Guangdong, Zhu Mingguo, announced the establishment of a task force to be stationed in Wukan. He proclaimed that “the primary demands of the masses are reasonable,”[3] and he led the group into the village. On January 15th, Lin Zuluan was appointed secretary of the Wukan party branch. Two months later (in March 2012), the village held a new election. An American human rights consul based in Guangzhou was among the many civil society figures who flocked to the village in order to watch the election on site and verify the results. In the end, Lin Zuluan was elected to head the village committee, and a number of the most active participants of the protest were elected to fill the rest of the committee seats. Xue Jinbo’s eldest daughter was also elected to the broader assembly of villager representatives. The events in Wukan had come to an end.

Between 2012 and 2014, with the assistance of the national government, the new village committee of Wukan regained a small portion of the land that had been sold off, but the villagers were disappointed to find that the land was locked in contracts and could not be immediately reassigned to different uses. In 2014, several of the most well-known members of the new village committee were formally charged with economic crimes. In September of 2016, Lin Zuluan was sentenced to three years in prison for accepting bribes.[4]

Throughout the events in Wukan, the protestors’ core demand was always the return of their land, because today this land could be leased out for a lot of money. And the election of the protest leaders to the new village committee seemed to be the defining moment in the movement’s success.

The Wukan election was based on national law. And China’s village-level elections have long been a sociopolitical phenomenon that has attracted a great deal of attention.

China’s Village Elections—Fact and Fiction

Ever since China began its market reforms, the top leadership has experimented with new techniques for the management of society in an attempt to adapt to the new economic conditions of capitalism and the rise of various commercial interest groups. Among these techniques, the state introduced elections to the countryside hand in hand with the decollectivization of farming. In 1982, China’s new constitution recognized that “village committees are the basic unit of the autonomous organization of the masses.” In 1988, the Organic Law of Villagers’ Committees was given a trial run, and in 1998 the Standing Committee put it into effect as the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees in the People’s Republic of China.[5] By the beginning of the 21st century, all villages in the country were said to have implemented local elections. In villages where there was profit to be made by serving as an official, the winning candidates were usually members of the local elite, and the elections were soon accompanied by some of the features of bourgeois electoral politics: Rustic politicians were busy making alliances and arranging under-the-table deals to sell out their constituencies, who they would openly ply with bribes, coerce with violence or deceive with false campaign promises. The most important gain of an electoral victory was control over village land transfers and the allocation of government funds.[6]

As for the state, it has ultimate authority over the outcome of elections, and it often brazenly intervenes midway through them, despite this violating the Organic Law.[7] It is often said that the purpose of this sort of meddling is to ensure that the candidate preferred by the authorities will win. These candidates are either those who come from powerful local clans or those who have garnered influence with local officials. Commonly seen forms of state meddling include but are not limited to: restricting the qualifications of voters and candidates (for example by education, age, work experience or criminal records), not announcing the results of an election or declaring them invalid, using the police to control polling stations, revoking or “temporarily” annulling the position of elected officials, not providing elected officials with their letter of appointment and official seal, or detaining and imprisoning them. In addition, the state can also use local laws in numerous ways to restrict or remove elected village officials and their basic powers.[8]

Apparently, China’s rulers chose village-level elections to serve as a laboratory for experimenting with multi-party competition and mass manipulation in a way that the results could be controlled. The state thus accumulated experience and trained personnel without having to worry about endangering the regime as a whole.

But Wukan’s elections seem to have been different somehow…

The Significance of Wukan: Private Capital Attempts to Change the Rules of Rule

Who were the initial planners of the protests? Was it the Wukan businesspeople who had hoped to speculate in land but were not in the good graces of the old village committee? Was it China’s liberal opposition, always keeping an eye on “village self-government” and searching for some way to undermine the ruling party? A group of bureaucrats using “constitutional democracy” as a weapon in some power struggle? Or possibly a foreign intelligence agency’s psychological warfare division?

The identity of those who helped set the events in motion is actually not the important question, however. The key point is rather the fact that, as events unfolded, they began to center on a skirmish regarding “the rules of rule” – the principles according to which the various fractions of China’s ruling class justify and wield their power over the rest of society.

For the past few decades, the CCP’s principles of rule can be summarized in a single sentence: It’s acceptable to give out lots of money, but never relinquish the smallest amount of real power. The party expands the foundation of its power by incorporating various interest groups, from the bosses of private enterprises to religious leaders, the “United Front Democratic Parties,” cultural celebrities, the families of overseas Chinese capitalists, and even criminal syndicates from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Although these groups are given privileges openly or illicitly, their special treatment can be reduced at a moment’s notice, and anyone involved can expect a ceremonial beating from time to time.

In regard to village elections, violations of the Organic Law have always had the tacit endorsement of the state.[9] This is intended both to rope the local cronies who control village affairs into complicity with the state, and to control the common people so they do not seize the opportunity to revolt. At the same time, this allows the state to be two-faced, attacking one party while colluding with the other and providing space for occasional changes of tactics.

In the wake of China’s ascension to the WTO, the new capitalist economy has developed rapidly and the private bourgeoisie has grown to an unprecedented strength. Even the most desolate corners have become congested with the smell of commerce. In affluent Guangdong province, the leading families in a village are usually also at the helm of private enterprises, and the state itself is a fusion of bureaucracy and business. Cases of this are already so familiar as to not even be newsworthy. Both the profitable collusion between individual capitalists and bureaucrats and, in turns, their struggles with each other over power have been rising to the surface and becoming more clearly visible. As a body, private capitalists are not content to have merely a supporting role in the People’s Congresses and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC),[10] hoping to break through even higher into the upper echelons of power. In such a context, it is no wonder that many mainstream pundits have long been so concerned with issues of village-level elections and “villager self-government.” The goal is to force the state to share power on the level of the rules of rule, thereby allowing the agents of private capital to enter the stage in a show of strength.

In the preparation for Wukan’s village election in March 2012, the local government recommended that each household get only one vote and that the village party secretary nominate all the candidates, but both proposals were shot down by the protesting villagers.[11] By contrast, some non-governmental think tanks researching electoral politics were met with a warmer welcome. After the compromise announced by Zhu Mingguo, these think tanks began to disseminate their knowledge throughout Wukan, spreading awareness about election procedures and improving in detail the techniques used to conduct the election, such as by putting the polling stations in order, convening meetings of the electorate and encouraging candidates to give public speeches. In response to the proposal that the candidates be nominated by the party secretary, the think tanks proposed a system of candidate qualifications formulated jointly by the candidates themselves along with other participants, and this was ultimately approved by the villagers. In addition, they attempted to establish a “Villager Assembly Organizer” system and to formulate “Guidelines for Convening Villager Assemblies and Villager Representative Assemblies in Wukan.”[12]

The orientation of the efforts mentioned above set out from existing laws to avoid the usual perfunctory nature of electoral politics at every step, to prevent manipulation by bureaucrats behind closed doors, to sort out the voting procedures and the qualifications for candidates and voters in a way beneficial to the eventual goal of achieving universal suffrage at all levels of government in China, and, finally, to overcome any technical obstacles that might stand in the way of this bigger goal.

After the Wukan election, Hu Deping—famous mouthpiece for private capital, son of Hu Yaobang[13] and vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce—offered his praise: “I hope that, from now on, when society confronts these sorts of problems, people can solve them by making use of negotiating methods and the rule of law.”[14] This statement articulated the essential goal that the mainstream opposition hoped to achieve through the Wukan events: to force the state to obey its own laws,[15] to stop acting as the supreme arbitrator in conflicts of interest, to step back and settle for being no more than one of the multiple parties involved in political transactions.

A Moment When the State Wavered

In the midst of this turmoil, the state maintained the image of dealing with the villagers in a way that was largely in accord with customary techniques: dialoging with leaders, declaring the possibility of concessions, at all times cracking down on the leading elements, not allowing spontaneous organizations to establish themselves, spending money after the unrest in order to placate the populace.[16] But in the later stages of events, the Guangdong authorities also used some non-conventional methods, the core of which was allowing the protesting villagers to elect their own leadership to village-level “political power.”[17] Returning to the main point: it was out of the question for the state to actually be routed. Some of the think tanks were already lobbying the protestors to build a true villager representative assembly to serve as a sort of “congress,” marking a monumental step forward for Chinese parliamentary democracy. However, the government’s stalling methods easily dissolved these ambitions. At the same time, the provincial and county governments used their expertise in “undertaking projects” to direct investment toward Wukan in order to assuage the people. And several years later, the once wealthy group of businessman “politicians” from the village committee ultimately returned to settle their scores.

The events in Wukan revealed the state wavering for just an instant. But why did it waver? Had there been some erosion in the Guangdong government’s fusion of business and bureaucracy? Or was it a byproduct of some struggle among the top leadership? Whatever the case, the core group of rulers who control large-scale nationalized industries and sections of private monopoly capital are engaged in a struggle with private capitalists who thirst for more power, but for the time being both parties are far from loading their guns in preparation for the final battle.

Among mainstream academics, although many have sung praises to Wukan,some have hummed a more hesitant tune, coldly pointing out “social repercussions” of the protests: Village youth have become disrespectful toward authority, showing no consideration for social order. They attack the village committee at every turn. These “little savages” cannot be tolerated, etc. This sort of position reflects the deepest instincts of the bourgeoisie: Although the actions of the masses may at times be favorable for private capital’s attempts to seize power, and although they require a certain toughness and malleability in order to avoid a pyrrhic battle with the state, they cannot ultimately be allowed to step beyond certain red lines. In the last instance, the masses can show off, and it’s even better if they do most of the hard work and serve as cannon fodder, but it’s unacceptable if they come to despise order and government. “Belief in Democracy” is all well and good, but to disturb power’s course of operation, or for the lower orders to question their superiors—that is out of the question.

The Villagers’ Role

And what of Wukan’s protesting villagers? What, ultimately, was their role? The protesters’ demand to “start a village parliament” and their call that “democratic self-government go down in history,” etc. provide a glowing aura for the movement but are not really that relevant, to put it bluntly. Their primary goal was to make money from real estate. Any method that helped get them closer to that goal would be utilized, regardless of whether that be loudly proclaiming their patriotism, founding their own independent media to livestream the scenes of the protest, receiving foreign journalists to write complementary news reports, or conducting elections with the cooperation of academics trying to sell their particular theory of democracy—or drawing on Chaoshan’s tradition of rural armed conflict. Nothing was off the table.

The leading protestors who took the stage were a group of locally born and raised businessmen. Is this proof that we are in an early stage of widespread politicization among those running private enterprises in southern China, longing to use elections to struggle for their independence from the political status that the state has currently assigned to them? This would be hard to prove. Take a single property owner: The greater his economic weight, the more he benefits from his class’s power. Even if he fails in political competition, he still has plenty of room to maneuver. On the other hand, the less significant he is among other property owners, the fewer perks he obtains from his class privilege, and the greater his risk in challenging the predominant political norms. Compared with certain circles of large-scale private capitalists striving to augment their share of political power, the small and mid-scale commercial interests represented by Lin Zuluan are miniscule both materially and in spirit. For the time being, as far as Lin and his kind are concerned, it is probably safer just to stick to making money.

The State Was Briefly Put in a Slightly Awkward Position, But…

In the midst of these scuffles about the rules of rule, the Chinese state was briefly put in a slightly awkward position, but it still had a firm grasp on the overall situation. The mainstream opposition appears to be benefiting somewhat, but these benefits are not so much material as psychological: After many years of village elections and related media discussions, the general public had already become accustomed to positive images of parliamentary politics, and the events in Wukan only added to this trend.

Simply put: The state was defending the existing rules that served its interests, the mainstream opposition linked to private capital attempted to revise those rules, and the villagers hoped to make money by taking advantage of either the old rules or the new ones.

The events in Wukan have ended. The state’s electoral experiment continues while the opposition is rushing around trying to build its own network. Both sides hope to maintain long-term stability under a capitalist order. The contradiction lies only in the question of who will play the dominant role in that order.

—Shannon Lee, 14 July 2017



[1] It is common for village committees to divide out the gains of local developmental projects (whether they be land sales or industrial profits from enterprises legally owned by the village) into portions retained for the committee itself as well as into “dividends” paid to all village residents. The exact form of these payments varies—sometimes it is in a lump sum of cash, sometimes as shares in an enterprise or real estate venture, and often it includes rights to newly-built housing for any villagers displaced by development.

[2] Wukan has a few dozen lineage groups of various sizes, each with a permanent organizational structure and some degree of influence among the villagers. Stemming from this, local clans began to take on a functional role in the organization of the protests.

[3] 2011年12月21日 南方日报 《省工作组进驻陆丰解决乌坎事件》.

[4] Of the other leaders of the Wukan movement, Zhuang Liehong, the owner of a clothing store, fled to America and applied for political asylum. In addition, after the arrest of Lin Zuluan, the villagers in Wukan again clashed with the police and a number were arrested, one receiving a sentence of ten years.

[5] The full text of the law can be found in English here: <http://www.china.org.cn/english/government/207279.htm&gt;

[6] In villages that were not in valuable parts of the countryside, it was common for no one at all to run for seats on the village committee, or, if someone did, the elections were invariably dull affairs.

[7] The eleventh article of the law states: “The chairman, vice-chairman (vice-chairmen) and members of a villagers committee shall be elected directly by the villagers. No organization or individual may designate, appoint or replace any member of a villagers committee.”

[8] The “Guangdong Provincial Villagers Committee Election Methods” stipulates that the village committee chairman and vice-chairman can be removed by higher authorities in the township. In addition, Guangdong uses a “head of household” voting system at the village level, depriving women, young people and even elders of the right to vote.

[9] The 3rd line of the 14th article of the Organic Law states: “The election shall be by secret ballot and open vote-counting; the outcome of the election shall be announced on the spot. During election, booths shall be installed for voters to write their ballots in private.” In the actual election process in nearly every village, cases of not conforming to the law can be found in every segment of the process, from printing ballots to voting, recording votes and publicly announcing the results.

[10] One of the people at the center of the Wukan events, the Hong Kong businessman Chen Wenqing, once served as vice-chair of the Lufeng County delegation to the CPPCC. (Though democratic in form, both the People’s Congress and the CPPCC are in practice controlled by the Communist Party, and the laws they pass are formulated within the party and authorized by the highest rungs of the state before being rubber-stamped by these larger “legislative” bodies. Both hold meetings only once a year, more significant as media events than as actual legislative sessions.)

[11] In the end, the elections were held according to “one person, one vote.”

[12] One such think tank member was Xiong Wei, head of the Beijing New Enlightened Citizen’s Participatory Legislative Research Center. Xiong explained: “The Villager Assembly Organizers’ role is exactly this, to authorize and convene a villager assembly when either the village representatives or the villagers demand one, in the event that the village committee does not convene one. According to my model, the election of the Villager Assembly Organizers occurs at the same time as the Village Committee election. 5 or 7 such organizers should be elected, and in the event that the village committee refuses to convene, the organizers can convene a villager representative assembly.”

[13] Hu Yaobang was a major figure in the CCP in both the revolutionary and reform periods. An associate of Deng Xiaoping, Hu served as both Party Chairman and General Secretary in the 1980s, helping to facilitate the implementation of market reforms. Hu was also among the first top Chinese officials to begin wearing a Western-style business suit, instead of the socialist-era Mao suit, a major symbolic shift in the regime.

[14] From “A Beijing Expert’s High Assessment of ‘Wukan’s Turn for the Better’” (北京专家学者高度评价“乌坎转机”), The Economic Observer (经济观察报), 27 December, 2011.

[15] In “Wang Yang: The Wukan Elections Contain No Innovation” (汪洋:乌坎选举没有创新, Fenghuang.com, 5 March, 2012), Wang Yang, the Guangdong Provincial Party Secretary, said; “We have implemented the procedures of the election law and the Organic Law very thoroughly, correcting the ways of the villages that formerly just went through the motions.”

[16] The family of Xue Jinbo, the only person to die during the protests, received 3.8 million yuan (a little more than half a million USD) in compensation, and his eldest daughter, who had been a teacher at an elementary school, was promoted to teach at a high school.

[17] According to current law, the village committees are not considered part of the state but rather autonomous organizations of the masses. In the March 2012 Wukan elections, however, they were widely regarded as such. Every aspect of the general mood and specific techniques used followed to a certain degree the civic process of capitalist democracies.


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