Filmmakers: Lynn Lee and James Leong

In late 2011, Wukan, a village in southern China, captured international attention when it rose up against decades of corrupt leadership.

The odds appeared insurmountable – Chinese authorities are not known for tolerating dissent. Still, despite a crackdown and the death of a leading activist, the unthinkable happened.

The Village Committee fell and democratic elections were announced. So what happens after a successful uprising?

This two-part series Wukan Votes begins as the elections get underway and China's extraordinary experiment in grassroots democracy begins.

Over the course of a year, filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong follow Wukan's villagers as they grapple with the challenges of a new political system. Former activists must now run the village, listen to the people, and deal with provincial and county authorities. Can they deliver on promises made during the elections?

Wukan Votes: Reality


How it all began: Wukan: After the Uprising  


By Lynn Lee

Anger over Fengtian farm and other tracts of stolen village land helped trigger a historic uprising in Wukan in late 2011, but problems had existed long before then. For four decades, a small group of people wielded control over the community. They ran the Village Committee, rigging elections every three years to ensure that power was only concentrated within their circle.

The uprising caught the world's attention and made international headlines. Not only did the villagers succeed in ousting their corrupt leaders, they also won approval from provincial authorities to hold democratic elections. The new Village Committee declared the start of a new era for Wukan and vowed to right the wrongs of the past. For many of their supporters, this meant getting back their lost land.

But it was a complicated process, one mired in red tape, lengthy lawsuits and corruption at the county level. On the first anniversary of the uprising, we filmed protestors berating the chief and his team for failing to do as they had promised. They wanted to know when were they getting the land back. It was a far cry from the adulation and applause that greeted the Committee's election victory just six months earlier.

This was why repossessing Fengtian farm was such a big deal for the chief. It was a chance for him to show the villagers that their trust in him was not misplaced. But if the chief expected gratitude, it never materialised. Instead, there was anger and dismay.

Fengtian's previous occupants were not happy about being evicted, and they did all they could to make their feelings known. Villagers who went to inspect the farm found rubbish-strewn buildings with smashed windows, hacked floors and destroyed staircases. An overwhelming stench permeated the property - piles of faeces had been dumped everywhere. Uprooted trees and rubble made the area look like a disaster zone. It was ugly, and for the villagers, one insult too many.

As word spread, the outrage grew. That afternoon, scores of protestors blocked a major road just outside Fengtian farm. They demanded compensation for damage done to the property. Hundreds of riot police arrived to disperse the crowd, but the villagers refused to budge.

The next morning, protestors gathered outside the Village Committee. They strung up white banners and called on the chief to quit. The gesture was deeply insulting - white is a colour normally associated with death in China.

The chief declared that he was stepping down. As he walked away from the jeering crowd, he turned and saw James approaching. Viewers who watched Wukan: After the Uprising will recall that this was where the series ended.

"Stop filming!" the chief shouted.

We were told to leave shortly after.

Back in Wukan: After the Fengtian fiasco

They arrested four protestors that day. The local rag-and-bone man was badly hurt – the villagers said police attacked him as he was bending down to pick up a plastic bottle. They thought he was planning to use it as a weapon.

If we were to pinpoint a time when things really started changing at the Village Committee, it would be during the Fengtian fiasco. The chief seemed a harder man afterwards. In subsequent meetings, he never mentioned the time he threw us out of the village. He also never discussed land issues with us again. Instead, he spoke about how it was important to maintain stability within the community.

Other Committee members also became more distant. Jianxing's brother Jiancheng, whom we had followed closely for more than a year, seemed increasingly reluctant to see us. When we managed to sit him down for an interview, he was fidgety and his answers sounded rehearsed and stilted.

What on earth was going on? We only learnt the truth months later.

In late December 2013, former Village Committee member Zhuang Liehong warned us that a crackdown was imminent. He believed things would become unbearable for activists who had led Wukan's uprising. A few weeks later, Zhuang Liehong and his wife left for a dream holiday in the United States. They never returned.

In February 2014, news broke that three members of Wukan's disgraced former Village Committee had been appointed to key positions in the local Communist Party. These were the same people ousted for corruption in 2011. They had laid low for a while, but were now back in positions of power. This was possible because of the way grassroots politics is run in China. Wukan's Village Committee might be democratically elected, but ordinary people do not get to decide who sits on the local Communist Party.

If they want to find me guilty for corruption because of this, there's nothing I can do.

Yang Semao, deputy chief, Wukan

Then came the arrests. Deputy chief Yang Semao was taken in first. He had been a vocal critic of the chief and had announced plans to run against him in upcoming elections. Semao spent two days in lock-up before being released on bail. Second deputy chief Hong Ruichao was detained soon after. Both men were accused of accepting bribes.

It was very late by the time we arrived at Ruichao's house. The rain came down hard that night. We were glad to accept the little cups of hot tea his family offered up. We were not surprised to find Yang Semao in the house. He looked exceptionally calm for someone facing a possible jail sentence.

Everyone insisted Ruichao was innocent. They agreed he had taken money from a local businessman, but said he returned every last cent the minute he felt something was wrong.

We asked Yang Semao about the charges levelled against him. He told us a villager had given him 20,000 yuan. It was apparently a "gift" from a person who preferred to remain anonymous. He said he donated half of it to the local school and told the villager to return the other half.

"If they want to find me guilty for corruption because of this, there's nothing I can do."


Just before the elections in 2014, we went to see the chief. He whipped out a stack of documents almost as soon as we sat down, and proceeded to lay them out on his living room floor. Smiling, he told us to take our time going through the papers.

"Evidence!" the chief exclaimed.

There were handwritten confessions, some dating back to as early as 2012. It appeared that a few members of the Village Committee were indeed corrupt.

Within the pile, we also discovered a copy of a receipt - Semao was not lying when he said he had given 10,000 yuan to the local school. Did this mean he was not guilty?

Where does the truth lie? We have our theories but will leave it to viewers to decide.

'Crossing the river by feeling the stones'

In the end, what is clear is that the Village Committee proved a disappointment to those who voted them in. The land issue remains largely unresolved, and there is the corruption scandal. Yet at the elections in 2012, there was so much hope, so much idealism and so many plans.

In truth, democracy was never given a chance to properly flourish in Wukan. The Village Committee was hindered at every step of the way – by county officials eager to protect their own interests, by a system that was not easy for novice politicians to navigate, by institutions above and around them that were fundamentally non-transparent and undemocratic, by fellow villagers too impatient for justice.

Jiancheng once used a Chinese saying to describe his work: "Like trying to cross a river by feeling for stones."

Over three years we have watched as he and his fellow Committee members flail and stumble in their bid to navigate the currents. Some have fallen. One person gave up. Others chose to go with the tide.

Source: Al Jazeera