Wukan will inspire others across China

Manson Chum - Senior reporter, Ming Pao

[中文] [Jul 2012 - The Journalist] The Wukan Incident is regarded as a milestone in China's history of civic activism. It created the first autonomous administration brought about by people's activism, as well as the first government-endorsed village authority formed entirely by the democratic process. These are achievements unmatched by any other form of activism in the country.

The series of protests in Wukan will inspire other activists; its formula will be copied. Journalists and Chinese mainlanders find its success exhilarating. However, people in Hong Kong only got to know its importance when it was about to end.

It was only when the fierce villagers in Shanwei had come to the final stage of their uphill battle that Ming Pao set out to the village. Fortunately, we made it in time. During our bus ride to Lufeng, we flipped through media reports by pioneers including the London Daily Telegraph, iSunaffairs and Yazhou Zhoukan. We were stunned by the video clips and pictures uploaded by the villagers. The riot police fired numerous rounds of teargas. The villagers replied with stones – and got the police on the run.

The Wukan Incident created the first autonomous administration
brought about by people's activism. (Picture by Manson Chum)
There was a lot of conflicting information, and the decisions by the Chinese authorities were beyond our expectations. There were rumours about the People's Liberation Army entering the village and suppressing the villagers with blazing guns. Before entering the village, Yu Chun-leung, the photo journalist, and I were prepared for the worst: a military mobilization on a scale not seen since 1989. En route we decided that our top priority on arriving at Wukan was to understand its topography: found out locations for shooting pictures that would be safe even if the PLA was going into action.

We decided to enter the village at night to make up for the time lost and for safety reasons. We later learnt that many reporters tried to reach Wukan by different ways that night. They were determined to go past the barricades despite repeated interceptions. Some hid themselves in a trunk, others waded through paddy fields. Some even rowed boats under a starry sky. The passion and determination of correspondents from the foreign media overshadowed those of the Hong Kong media. This is something we should reflect upon.

We passed through the village's makeshift barricades at about 10 pm The "provisional government" had designed primitive but effective defence measures. Guards stood behind the barricades. Some were communicating on walkie-talkies, others were busy handing out hot congee to those on duty.
Gongs were their sirens. Messengers rode on motorbikes. If the riot police tried to push through the barricades, resistance could be organized within 15 minutes. Piles of stones were stacked at roadside fortifications, ready for villagers to fight off intruders any time. Villagers later said their strongest weapon was their fearless resolve even if it meant death. This translated into the simple strategy of throwing stones, and yet more stones...until the police retreat.

This simple strategy hinged on one prerequisite: complete unity among the villagers and uniqueness of the Wukan example lay in the villagers determination to die for their cause. Without doubt, the political wisdom of village leader Lin Zulun impressed both local and foreign journalists.

Lin's tug-of-war with the authorities has been well documented by the media. His readiness to sacrifice his life has won the hearts of many reporters.

On the night when the villagers claimed victory, a half-drunken man responsible for patrolling the area shared his experiences over the past few days. More than once he emphasized he would not witness Wukan being taken down by riot police or the military. His answer was self-explanatory, "I must be dead when they occupy the village. If they want to take it they have to step on my dead body."

The diligence and perseverance of the villagers were also highlighted in the ways they treated the media. During my brief stay I heard villagers repeatedly reminding reporters not to write in favour of them. They said Wukan did not need propaganda, but only reports that are true and impartial. "Please write what you see", said the villagers.

A reporter arrived at Wukan one night. The villager who was responsible for receiving the media asked me cautiously, "Is he from xxx media? Their reports are so much exaggerated. Could you please talk to him and ask him not to overstate our intentions?" The villagers reckon that political manoeuvres are an art of balance. Any report that glorified their activism and comparing it with a military uprising would not do any good to the village.

We later learnt that even the Guangdong provincial government couldn't see the full picture of the ongoing events in Wukan as the village was besieged by the Lufeng municipal authorities. The provincial government relied on media reports to understand the development, and certainly they are not happy. Countless visitors entered the village in disguise, using excuses like interviews, providing assistance, etc. These informants dispatched by the provincial government came to understand the decisions of village leaders and the reporting directions of the media. A man walked up to the barricades one midnight. He said he was a reporter, but he was unable to prove his identity the self-defence force was suspicious, but still let him in.

"Yes there are risks, but we just can't shut the world out," a commander said. They followed the man closely and the initial suspicion turned out to be justified. He was asked to leave the village eventually.

The next day, a young man with permed and dyed hair and wearing fashionable outfit came. He claimed to be a university student. If he was a special agent, he must be the trendiest one I have ever seen. His English was fluent with a strong foreign accent and he sounded like he was very westernised. The young man said he was inspired by the Wukan protests so he played truant to come here. Unfortunately he was not a very good actor. When asked about his opinion of the protest he was reluctant to speak out, not about the official one, but merely gave ambiguous statements. He deliberately hung out with reporters but when he was questioned by the villagers, he could not shy away any more. He had no identification documents other than a cash card.

The reporting experience in Wukan was unique and invaluable. Every time I work in mainland China I am impressed by the people's thirst for media attention. For them, journalists are more noble than the president of the Supreme People's Court. Unfortunately, China's media face many constraints; their stories are re-written or censored. Villagers said many local media did in-depth interviews but the reports turned out to be no different from the state media's copy.

At the height of the protests we only met reporters from two local media. They said their assignments were not approved by their bosses. "We paid for our own expenses. If the news is censored in newspapers we can publish it online. This is a historic moment for the country and we cannot be absent."

Indeed, except for a few Hong Kong media, most newspapers and TV stations missed this historic event. It's time for some reflection. Another Wukan Incident is just around the corner.