Authorities in south China appeared to have tightened control over Wukan village by denying its detained chief legal representation and ordering onsite reporters to leave “for their own safety.”
Lin Zulian, a democratically-elected local leader, was arrested early Saturday. He had led the village’s 20,000 residents in months-long protests since 2011 against the local government, after local Communist Party leaders were found to have pocketed gains from illegal sales of the village’s farmland to Hong Kong-based land developers.
Lin was arrested one day before the village’s assembly planned to petition authorities for help in more land grab cases.
On Monday, the chief’s family hired rights lawyers Ge Yongxi and Yu Pinjian to represent Lin. However, both lawyers have been barred by local judicial officials from advising Lin, who now faces charges of corruption.
On a statement posted on his Weibo account, attorney Yu said that he began receiving numerous harassing phone calls from strangers the moment he decided to represent Lin.
FILE - Lin Zuluan smiles after he was elected as chief of village in an election to select village committees in Wukan village, Lufeng city, in southern China's Guangdong province.
Last night, Yu tried to make it to the village, but was intercepted by authorities.
“While on his way to Wukan last night, he was stopped by local judicial officials who asked him to go home,” a non-government organization worker, who stays with Lin’s family in Wukan, told VOA.
Upon Yu’s arrival in Shanwei city, where Wukan village is located, Yu wrote on Weibo that his family called and conveyed a threatening message from the authorities: “If you return home tonight, nothing will happen. If not, things will get ugly tomorrow.”
Yu said he headed back home.
“What has happened to the rule of law in China?” he wrote.
Abuse of law
Echoing Yu’s doubts, Ge told VOA that the rule of law has been abused every step of the way in Wukan: be it the arrest of Lin without a warrant, a videotaped confession, coercion of Lin’s family members, and denial of his lawfully-entitled counsel. He said the incident set another bad example of power abuse in China and the Communist Party’s anti-democracy sentiment.
“A grass-roots democratic model has been successfully developed in Wukan. But judging from the latest development, they obviously are desperate to put an end to the model,” Ge said.
Ge puts the blame on the party-state system’s authoritarian nature, in which tolerance for a democratic rule in both local and central government hardly exists.
Villagers carry banners which read "Plead the central government to help Wukan" (in red) and "Wukan villagers don't believe Lin Zuluan took bribes" during a protest in Wukan, China's Guangdong province on June 22, 2016.
Five years after the Wukan protests began land grabs remain an issue, as villagers argue another plot of land measuring 170,000 square meters and sold to another Hong Kong developer is also disputed.
In response, Shanwei city authorities said Monday this disputed plot also belongs to several other villages bordering Wukan and thus requires lengthy time for the local government to investigate thoroughly.
They added that more than half of the total 900,000 square meters of land in dispute has been returned to the Wukan village.
“It [Wukan incident] may be an isolated case, but it exposes many of our flaws in nurturing grass-root democracy, fulfilling the government’s obligations, raising people’s trust in governments and enforcing the rule of law,” Ren Jianming, director of the anti-corruption and governance research center at Tsinghua University in Beijing told VOA.
Given the Shanwei city government’s poor crisis management, Ren says he expects the provincial government to soon step in and mediate so as to ease public anger.
Yet sources in the village say there are no signs the Shanwei city government is backing down as it has ordered scores of journalists onsite to leave the village, a move that will only attract more media attention.