Authorities in southern China took drastic steps on Tuesday to publicly shame the chief of a local fishing village known as Wukan, well before he faced charges of corruption in court.
At an official news conference, authorities showed what they said was a videotaped confession of the democratically elected and popular village chief Lin Zulian.
In the confession, which was supposedly spontaneous, Lin appears to be reading his entire statement.
“Given my thin understanding and ignorance of the law, I've received huge kickbacks from various infrastructure projects, as well as from the collective purchase of village-owned properties," Lin said in the video, which was distributed to villagers via social media and later broadcast to the public at a press conference. In the video, Lin is seen sitting in chair in front of two unidentified individuals in a padded room.
In 2011, the residents of Wukan barricaded the village and kicked out local Communist Party leaders over a land-grab dispute. In a rare show of compromise between locals and Communist Party officials, the village was allowed to hold elections for their village council the following year, during which Lin and others were elected.
The land dispute has yet to be resolved and villagers have said that Lin’s arrest came just one day before Wukan residents were planning to hold a village meeting to discuss the lingering dispute and petitioning local authorities for help.
Villagers, including Lin’s wife, quickly dismissed his alleged confession of colluding developers associated with the land-grab, saying they believed it was forced.
“This is to deceive people,” she said, adding, “he is innocent.”
Sources in Wukan tell VOA that Lin’s wife is seeking legal help in her husband’s case. But it is not clear who might represent him. China routinely uses confessions to publicly shame and blame individuals before they are tried in court.
China-based rights activists have said the tactic is widely seen as a tool to show guilt when evidence is lacking and authorities have some ulterior motive in targeting an individual.
In another telling detail, Lin's grandson was also held for questioning and released just before Lin's purported confession was made public. Rights advocates have documented numerous examples of authorities in China using family members to coerce alleged suspects into making confessions.
Villagers in Wukan were not the only ones questioning authorities’ actions.
Nearly 200,000 comments were posted in response to just one story about the confession on a popular Chinese news site Net-ease. Many questioned the authorities’ actions, charges and use of the videotaped confession.
“In order to maintain your own supremacy, [authorities] totally ignore law and order and treat it as if its nothing, and in turn lose all public credibility,” wrote a commentator named Grumpy A-Lu.
Popular microblogger Guo Shiying wrote, “If this is not handled correctly, from this day forward, don’t even talk about 'rule of law in China.'”
Another added: “Once they say you are guilty, you are guilty.”
On Tuesday, locals planned to join with some village councillors to protest outside a Chinese government office, but that demonstration was postponed as authorities arrested members of the village council. A reporter from Hong Kong who was there to cover the protest was among those taken into custody.
Sources tell VOA that schoolchildren in Wukan were kept at school until 6 p.m. on Tuesday, apparently as part of an effort to have children, even those in elementary school, sign a document supporting criminal allegations against Lin.
"Some villagers went to pick up their kids from school and realized that some students were asked to sign some kind of papers," said one non-governmental worker in Wukan. "Many of them refused to sign. [In face of coercion,] some even burst into tears in class."
Authorities provided no immediate comment on allegations of coerced signatures, but officials have said that they will respond to any concerns or problems raised by the Wukan villagers.
The city government of Lufeng, which oversees Wukan, has pledged to resolve the ongoing land rights dispute, but added that if that effort aren't sufficient, local residents will need to resolve the issue in the courts.