Wukan: China’s Experiment with Democracy
Al Jazeera (2017)
This very strange documentary is largely based on amateur footage smuggled out of China by social media activists. As the filmmakers point out, China experiences tens of thousands of mass uprisings every year. Most relate to local corruption and illegal theft and sale of communal land. In most cases, they fizzle out without producing any real change. A September 2011 protest in the village of Wukan was an exception. It resulted in villagers winning the right to choose their own village committee in democratic elections – a process virtually unheard of in Communist China.
Three months following the election of the new village committee (which was subject to heavy phone tapping and physical surveillance), county and provincial officials agree to return a few plots of stolen land to village farmers. Unfortunately, however, a ban on demolishing the wall surrounding their farms prevents the original owners from repossessing their property.
After a year, villagers succeeded in repossessing a second plot of land, only to find it unusable due to contamination with industrial waste. As provincial authorities continue to to stall on returning the stolen land, village protests resume. Only this time they are directed against the new village committee. There is considerable mistrust directed against the village chief especially, a man named Lin Zulan – who in the mean time has become secretary of the local Communist Party.
When two village committee members attempt to stand against him in the 2014, they are jailed on bribery charges (which surprisingly appear to be genuine). The two men have succumbed to a kind of entrapment – accepting “bonuses” at Lin’s direction without realizing this is bribery and illegal.
In 2016, after winning his sixth election, Lin organizes a petition and marching demanding the stolen land be returned. He himself is arrested on bribery charges, along with his grandson, a student in a nearby city (who has had no involvement with the protests). After Lin appears on TV to make what villagers believe is a forced confession on TV, his grandson is released.
The protests resume in earnest following Lin’s arrest. After 85 days of protests, there is a brutal crackdown – resulting in the murder, beatings and arrest of large numbers of villagers. Simultaneously the village is totally cut off physically and electronically from the rest of China.
After being warned of the crackdown, one of the village committee members escapes to New York, where he makes contact with the US pro-Chinese democracy movement. It’s their 2016 protest in front of the UN that brings the plight of Wukan to world attention.