China: Harsh sentences for Wukan protesters

2011 Wukan movement captured global attention.

Jail terms of up to ten years imposed on nine protesters 

Vincent Kolo,

The ‘Wukan model’, once held up as a beacon of local democracy under a totalitarian state, has well and truly been killed off by the Chinese dictatorship (CCP).

The sentences handed down against nine defendants on 26 December by a court in Haifeng County in southern China, are very harsh. There can be no mistaking the political message they are intended to send out as a warning to all those who would challenge CCP rule. Instead, the fate of the Wukan protesters will arouse massive sympathy in China and abroad.

The court imposed jail terms varying from two to ten years on the nine, who were arrested after protests in September. Those sentenced are Wei Yonghan, Yang Jinzhen, Hong Yongzhong, Wu Fang, Zhuang Songkun, Cai Jialin, Li Chulu, Chen Suzhuan, and Zhang Bingchai. They faced charges of staging an unlawful assembly which “severely disrupted social order” and for disseminating false information, according to a statement on the website of the People’s Court of Haifeng. Specific details of the sentences have not been released. This case provides a snapshot of the worsening repression – the worst for 25 years – under China’s ‘core’ leader, Xi Jinping.

Since mass protests erupted in this village in Guangdong province in 2011, against land grabs and the corruption of the old village leaders, Wukan has generated global headlines. It was seen as an important test case for democratic development in China. In December 2011, after a wave of repression against the villagers’ demands, and the brutal death of a protest leader in police custody, a landmark agreement was struck between the representatives of the protest movement and the CCP leaders in Guangdong province. This allowed local elections to take place to a seven-seat village council. A key figure in this process was Lin Zuluan, a local CCP official who supported the protest movement.

Solidarity with Wukan: Protest in Hong Kong.


Lin was elected to lead the village council over the five years since then. But in reality the elected Wukan council was powerless and its efforts to reverse the land grabs and to settle other outstanding issues from the 2011 protests were frustrated and blocked by higher-level authorities. This triggered new protests in Wukan this summer, and the arrest and subsequent legal frame-up of Lin Zuluan, now aged 72, on corruption charges.

Lin was given a 37-month prison sentence in September, which became the trigger for a new round of protests and a fierce crackdown by the authorities. His real crime was to have supported the resumption of mass protests. Lin lodged an appeal against his sentence and withdrew his ‘confession’ to accepting bribes. But unsurprisingly, the appeal court in October upheld the original sentence.

Lin had made a televised ‘confession’ as many other political detainees have done in China in the recent period. This was clearly made under duress, with the authorities holding and threatening to press charges against Lin’s grandson. His family also say a trade-off was offered (also common practise), promising Lin a suspended sentence if he confessed. This deal was shown to be yet another trick by the authorities.

The trial of the Wukan Nine and the severe jail terms imposed upon them are part of a wider crackdown against Wukan and its legacy as a symbol of struggle against the CCP regime. The Guangdong provincial CCP chief, Hu Chunhua, is believed to have ordered the crackdown in the hope this will boost his prospects for promotion in a crucial national leadership shake-up due late next year. Unlike his predecessor as provincial chief, who brokered the 2011 Wukan deal under very different political circumstances, Hu’s hardline stance undoubtedly chimes well with Xi Jinping’s doctrine of ‘zero tolerance’ towards any opposition. This has seen widespread repression against NGOs and rights lawyers, labour activists and even the abduction of dissidents overseas and in Hong Kong, previously off limits to the Chinese regime.

Socialists and have followed the Wukan struggle closely because it holds many important lessons: inspiring examples of grassroots organisation and resistance, but also warnings against entrusting the fate of any struggle to ‘honourable compromises’ with the CCP regime. Wukan shows that a dictatorial regime cannot be ‘reformed’ into a democratic one, it must be replaced through the actions of a mass democratic movement led by the working class. This is also confirmed by the cruel treatment of Lin Zuluan, who is no radical, but rather a ‘pragmatist’ who stands for limited reform within the CCP system.

These lessons are critical for the coming struggles in China, when the dictatorship will be confronted not by one heroic village, but hundreds and even thousands of similar mass eruptions.

More on Wukan:

Wukan 2.0 – new mass protests in Chinese village

Chinese regime turns Wukan into “war zone”

China: The Wukan uprising and its lessons