On Thursday a court in Guangdong province upheld the conviction of former Wukan village chief Lin Zuluan for corruption charges, rejecting appeals by the prosecution and defendant to alter his 37 month prison sentence and 200,000 yuan fine.
“The court finds that Lin has committed offences of taking bribes and taking bribes as a non-state official,” the Foshan Intermediate People’s Court said in a statement on its website yesterday, according to the South China Morning Post.
72-year-old Lin Zuluan was a key organizer during the 2011 protests in Wukan, a tiny fishing village in southern Guangdong province where villagers staged a standoff with the local government in response to sweeping land seizures. The conflict gained widespread media coverage around the world and prompted officials to make concessions with the protesters, agreeing to return some of the seized land and hold an unprecedented open election for new village leaders.
Lin was first appointed as the Party leader of Wukan after the protests, later he won the election for village chief by a landslide in 2012. Wukan became an important example of grassroots democracy succeeding in China, where positions are typically determined by local Communist Party officials and a single political ideology reigns supreme. However, hopes for the dubbed “Wukan experiment” were crushed this June when Lin was arrested for allegedly accepting bribes and abusing power. Before his detainment Lin had called for another protest against land acquisitions by the government, showing that prior concerns about the issue have not died down since the 2011 dispute.
In a video released by state media, Lin was shown “confessing” to taking bribes. “Due to my ignorance of law, I took huge kickbacks in contracting and procurement projects. This is a crime — the biggest crime I’ve committed,” Lin was recorded as saying. Soon after, over 2,000 villagers took to the street of Wukan, waving bright red Chinese national flags and chanting “give back our secretary” and “give back out lands,” believing that Lin’s confession had been coerced.
Lin was not given back and unrest broke out again in September after he was sentenced to three years in prison. Villagers with stones and bricks clashed in the streets with Chinese police in riot gear firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters.
Afterward, Wukan went into lockdown. Chinese authorities arrested Hong Kong journalists trying to interview villagers and put a bounty on “foreign forces” hiding in the village. Meanwhile, internet censors clamped down on rumors that villagers had been killed during the fighting, and state media insisted that the situation had returned to normal.
Finally, during his appeal trial on October 12, Li renounced his earlier guilty plea. One week later, the appeals court upheld the original verdict. We’ll have to wait and see how Wukan villagers react this time.
Government land grabs are a major source of tension in rural China, where land is still collectively owned by town and village councils. Increasing property values and the inability for individuals to buy or sell land often leave countryside residents defenseless against local governments eager to remove them to spur economic development and fatten their own pockets. The resulting encounters can sometimes turn violent. In an analysis of 40 cases of forced evictions by Amnesty International, 9 resulted in the deaths of people resisting being removed, including a 70-year-old Hubei woman who was buried to death by an excavator while her home was being demolished.
The Chinese government has previously attempted to address the rural land rights issue by proposing better compensation for farmers and size limits for land seizures, but further reform efforts are expected to gridlock against vested interests. Considering local governments collect 40% to 80% of their revenue from land sales, property rights for rural Chinese could still be far from materializing.
The continued imprisonment of Lin Zuluan not only raises concerns for the future of democracy in China but also the ability for residents of the country’s agricultural hinterland to preserve their homes and livelihood. As the situation in Guangdong develops, let’s hope that human dignity will be weighed over economic upkeep and government image.
By Avery Davenport