The Spirit of Wukan

Can a small farming town's remarkable protest against corrupt officials spread across China?

WUKAN, ChinaPeasants do not have a good record facing off with the Communist Party. Rural standoffs usually end with the arrest of the ringleaders and an increased security presence for the remaining residents. Yet on Thursday afternoon, Dec. 22, residents of the embattled village of Wukan scored a major achievement in their 11-day stand-off with local government, securing the release of one of the village's three detained leaders; the other two were released today.

On Wednesday, a deputy party secretary of Guangdong Province arrived to negotiate with village leaders, promising to grant all of their initial demands: release of three elected representatives of Wukan who were detained two weeks ago; return of the body of Xue Jinbo, a village leader who died in police custody; and direct negotiations with the temporary committee, a interim governing body chosen by villagers, whose members were earlier denounced by the government as criminals. "It is totally unprecedented that a high-level official will come to talk with protesting farmers," one activist who came to witness events told me on Tuesday night.

In September, residents of Wukan accused local officials of embezzling more than $110 million dollars of money owed to them for selling more than 80 percent of the villager's arable land to developers, and marched on the county seat. Significantly, compared with the tens of thousands of other protests that happen across China each year, local officials fled Wukan on Dec. 11, leaving the town in the hands of the village community. Their success puts them in a risky position, as the Wukanese have challenged not just the local authorities but a basic assumption behind Communist Party rule: that the Chinese people, and especially the rural masses, need authoritarian rule to prevent the country from descending into chaos. Ten days into life without police or party officials, Wukan was almost peaceful -- save for the array of police forces that surrounded the town. Still, the gumption of the Wukanese may be a new model for activism in communities across China.

After initial destruction of property at local government offices, Wukan's temporary committee announced this to be a nonviolent protest. The deserted police station is still locked and intact, as are the houses of local elites and families of officials, most of whom have left the village. Villagers refrained from looting and instead focused on bringing food into the village through back roads, away from security forces that massed outside. They coordinated mass rallies, making protest signs, and cooked for the hordes of journalists who descended on the village.

One Western reporter compared the atmosphere in Wukan to that of the Paris Commune; a veteran Hong Kong journalist reminisced about Beijing in the spring of 1989, before the crackdown on Tiananmen. He described then an almost intoxicating sense of unity and generosity, where cab drivers drove protestors for free and thieves vowed to switch professions, buoyed by a feeling that all was good and possible in the fleeting moment. 

But can the spirit of Wukan last? The small farming village of 13,000 thousand embodies social changes brought about by more than 30 years of economic reforms in China. The first generation of migrant workers that left their villages to work in the cities is now retiring from factory work. Many of them have returned to their villages to open small businesses or work their families' fields. But they have found a harsh truth: Local governments, relying ever more heavily on land sales to generate income and wielding unchecked power over their citizens, have left rural residents with few ways to support themselves. In Wukan, the protest was supported by a group of returnees, mostly in their thirties and forties, who had moved back to the village over the past few years planning to settle back into rural life -- but who have been unsettled by the pervasive corruption.

Yang Semao, 43, head of the temporary committee, came back to the village in June after a few years working in the boomtown of Shehzhen, about 100 miles away. "When I returned it became clear to me that things are getting worse here," he says. Many of the villagers had lost much of their land in the deal, while high inflation eats away at their savings.

"Until few months ago, it was each person to himself here," says another recent returnee, Jiang, who gave just his last name for fear of government reprisal for speaking to reporters. "Some of us petitioned but we weren't very organized. Now we think it's better if we act together. We become more organized, more united, with each day that passes."

But it's not only the older crowd. The most effective young activist in Wukan is probably a 20 year old surnamed Zhang, the village's videographer. He spent two years at a vocational school in a nearby city where he taught himself to use a video camera, with the goal of becoming an independent filmmaker. When protests started in September, he returned with his camera. Zhang's footage of police violence and his friend's eye-catching protest banners distributed to journalists on compact discs and posted on Chinese microblogs brought Wukan to the world's attention.

While the Wukan movement made global headlines, local news was suppressed by Chinese government censors. Some Chinese netizens, however, have still found ways to spread news from Wukan around the country, using different Chinese characters for the village's name.  Some posts were forwarded thousands of times before being deleted by censors.

Despite government warnings and increased surveillance on dissidents during this last week, more than a dozen activists made their way through police checkpoints and into the village, sneaking in on side roads and helped by sympathizers from other villages. Some of them had earlier this year participated in the still ongoing campaign against the house arrest of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his family, a cause célèbre most recently taken up by film star Christian Bale. Veteran activists tweeted about the scene to the outside world, offering advice to the villagers.

Still, there were tensions between the two groups: Dissidents wanted to make this protest the start of a wider movement for broader social change across China, while most Wukanese stressed that they only wanted resolution of their local issues, and that they maintained trust in the Communist Party. Surprisingly, even though Wukan's leaders called for an end to the protest and the roads around the city have been opened, the village still enjoys autonomy. Whether this is the start of a softer approach by the Chinese government to rural unrest, or just a way to quiet things in Wukan until the media loses interest, remains to be seen.

Zheng Yanxiong, a mid-ranking official, best captured the mood in a speech that went viral over the Chinese Internet. Zheng reproached Wukan for seeking help from the foreign media instead of the government, and dismissed claims of police violence as false. In a moment of probably unintentional honesty, he said: "As villagers get smarter, they become harder to manage." If this intelligence spreads it could be difficult indeed.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images


Assad's Lebanese Invasion

The Syrian regime wants to crush any expression of dissent in its fragile neighbor. President Bashar al-Assad's allies in Beirut are only too happy to oblige.

BEIRUT – The blacked-out sport utility vehicles entered the small mountain village of Arsal, in the furthest reaches of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, at midnight on a cold night late last month. The mostly Sunni residents of the town immediately knew what was happening: Hezbollah had come to grab someone from his bed.

The target appears to have been a Syrian relative of the dominant local tribe, the Qarqouz, who had taken refuge in the village, which lies just a few miles from the Syrian border. With close families ties on both sides of the line, as well as a central government presence that doesn't even live up to the designation of "weak," the tribes make little distinction between Syria and Lebanon, and many make their livings plying that most cliché of all Beqaa trades: cross-border smuggling.

Whether the wanted man is a dissident Syrian remains unclear -- the family certainly denies any such thing. Nevertheless, the raid by Hezbollah's internal security apparatus follows a pattern of harassment, kidnapping, and cross-border rendition of Syrian anti-regime activists by Syria's many loyalists in Lebanon, which also include rogue police units, pro-Syria political movements, and even Kurdish separatists. As President Bashar al-Assad looks to squelch an astonishingly persistent nine-month revolt, Lebanon is fast becoming another battleground between supporters and opponents of his rule.

The Arsal incursion, however, did not go how Hezbollah planned. The men in black trucks didn't impress the residents of Arsal: True to their reputation as a flinty bunch, the tribes immediately sent out men bedecked with the ubiquitous accessories of any respectable Beqaa smuggler -- the AK-47 and rocket propelled grenade launcher -- and ambushed the convoy before it could lay hands on the purported Syrian fugitive.

Local officials released a statement shortly afterwards, warning Hezbollah against any attempt to repeat its adventure. "Let everyone know that Arsal is not orphaned," it read. "[A]nyone attacking Arsal or any other Lebanese town would be definitely serving the Zionist enemy and Assad's brigades."

Hezbollah, which tepidly denied the incident, hasn't released any casualty figures, but the ensuing firefight was nasty enough that the Lebanese Army dispatched a team to extract the Hezbollah men from the ambush -- and itself came under fire from Sunni mountainfolk with little use for either Shiite militant supporters of the Assad regime, or law enforcement of any sort.

The Lebanese army claimed in a convoluted statement the next day that an intelligence unit was in hot pursuit of a known criminal when it unexpectedly came under attack. However, that narrative unraveled over the next few days, when a collection of local officials and anti-Syrian Sunni politicians accused Hezbollah of instigating the attack -- a claim confirmed to FP by multiple intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as one prominent human rights activist.

This latest incident is just the latest example of how the Syria revolt has spilled over onto Lebanese soil, threatening to destabilize the already fragile country. Over the last few months, as the protest movement has waxed and waned, Syrian troops have repeatedly crossed into Lebanese territory, breaching a frontier they never really respected in the first place, and laid land mines along their shared border in a bid to stop smugglers and deter both refugees from leaving and armed opponents of the regime from mounting operations.

Hezbollah, which has stood firmly behind the Syrian regime during the current crisis, has been Assad's primary Lebanese ally in this crackdown. Internal security and counterintelligence for Hezbollah falls under the domain of perhaps the single most feared man in Lebanon, the head of internal security for the Islamic Resistance, Wafiq Safa, whose men arrest and interrogate perceived threats to the "resistance."

In the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut, which is full of Syrians who have come to Lebanon for economic or political reasons, there is a noticeable chill as people try to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of Syria's war.

"If you're being arrested by men in blacked-out SUVs or vans, you're being arrested by Hezbollah," according to one Shiite Lebanese resident of southern Beirut who lives near Hezbollah's "security zone," which houses headquarters buildings and the families of top officials. "Even [military intelligence] guys have to have license plates on their cars and identify themselves. But ‘the resistance' doesn't need to bother. No one in Lebanon can touch them for murder of a prime minister -- ask the special tribunal -- so do you think they worry about traffic tickets, or kidnapping a Syrian? No one would dare question them."

Like virtually everything else in this divided country, which narrative a particular Lebanese believes is directly tied to their political allegiances. For Hezbollah and other Syrian regime allies, Assad is battling a truly complex alliance of al Qaeda and Sunni fundamentalists --sponsored by the Americans and Israelis. Assad's opponents, on the other hand, hold that the Lebanese government has been cowed by threats of a Syrian invasion if it doesn't help crush dissent in the rural safe havens along the border.

Lebanon's Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, a Hezbollah ally, announced on Dec. 21 that Arsal had become an al Qaeda safe haven, drawing bitter denials from the village's mayor and tribal elders, who pointed to months of local farmers being shot by Syrian troops for tending fields along the border, Syrian troops incursions, and of course, last month's Hezbollah-led debacle.

For anti-Assad dissidents in Lebanon, even more ominous than the Arsal raid is the growing evidence that they are not even safe from Assad's long reach in the capital of Beirut.

The illegal abduction of three Syrians in February from the parking lot of a police station - where they were then transported over the border and turned over to Syrian intelligence - confirmed many Lebanon-based Syrians' worst fears.

Jassim Jassim, one of the hundreds of thousands of day laborers who make their living working in Lebanon, had been arrested briefly by the Lebanese police for handing out flyers calling for the end of Assad's regime, according to police officials who investigated the incident. Shortly after his arrest, Jassim, a Sunni from Homs, called his brother and brother in-law to say he would be released shortly and they should come to the station in the Beirut suburb of Baabda to pick him up.

Hours later, after none of the men returned, Jassim's wife called his mobile phone. A man speaking in a Syrian accent answered, and informed her that the three men had been taken "home." They've never been heard from again.

An investigation by the head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF), Brig Gen. Ashraf Rifi, a supporter of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Tripoli, discovered that the three men were thrown into an SUV with ISF markings in the police station parking lot. Even more disturbingly, the driver was later indentified as Lt. Saleh al-Hajj, the head of the ISF protection detail at the Syrian embassy in Beirut.

According to a police officer assigned to the embassy protection team who has worked with Hajj in the past, it is widely known that Hajj works closely with Syrian intelligence. His father, Ali al-Hajj, was a top Lebanese intelligence official under the Syrian occupation and one of four top security officials detained for years on suspicion of plotting the murder of Saad Hariri's father Rafiq, also a former prime minister. However, because of Lebanon's diverse mosaic of loyalties and patronage, there is nothing even the head of the police can do to rein in such rogue operators.

"Everyone in the [police] works for some faction or party," the young officer explained. "The corruption is bad enough, but it's the politics that can get you killed. Sometimes I think everyone I work with has two commanders -- his police commander and his political commander: Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Some people have even turned out to work for the Israelis. It's a catastrophe for Lebanon."

Other dissidents have gone missing as well, and still more have fled the country after receiving warning that their names have appeared on a hit list of anti-regime targets being sought by Syria's Lebanese allies.

"[T]he Syrians have a long arm in Lebanon," according to Rami Nakhle, a prominent Syrian dissident who was based in Lebanon at the start of the uprising but was eventually forced to flee to the United States after being warned his name was on a list for assassination or kidnapping held by Hezbollah and other Syrian-aligned groups.

Another activist, who remains in Lebanon but asked not to be identified for safety reasons, said that sympathetic members of the Lebanese intelligence services have done their best to protect them, but due to the influence of Hezbollah and remnants of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, "often the best they can do is warn us when our name comes up for elimination."

Hezbollah, for its part, denies involvement in anything sinister. One Hezbollah internal security official interviewed by FP admitted that his teams were hunting Syrian dissidents, but denied kidnapping peaceful demonstrators.

"We're looking for weapons dealers, al Qaeda members, and those who would destabilize Lebanon," he said. "It's like when the Iraqi refugees first started coming here in 2004. We had to closely monitor them to make sure they were safe. But we don't kidnap people and if we arrest them, we turn them over to the Lebanese authorities for prosecution."

The claim that Hezbollah is only targeting weapons dealers or terrorists runs into some basic mathematical problems. One Lebanese intelligence official said the number of actual weapons smugglers or al Qaeda-types arrested "might reach 10. Maximum." Meanwhile, dozens of Syrians in Lebanon have reported harassment or arrest, and even in some cases been victims of disappearances.

The situation has put the professionals in the Lebanese military and intelligence services in a bind. Nobody these days envies the position of Prime Minister Nijab Miqati, who is attempting to balance the interests of the pro-Syrian political bloc that brought him to power with the beliefs of his own Sunni constituency, which is outraged by Assad's brutality. In an effort to heal Lebanon's social and political fabric -- which was fraying even before Syria started to self-immolate -- Miqati has worked overtime to appear as neutral as possible without infuriating either Hezbollah or the ruthless Syrian regime next door. His government has backed the Syrian regime at the Arab League, but has also not entirely squelched Syrian refugees' freedoms in Lebanon.

One consistent fear is that Syria, which blames Lebanon's predominantly Sunni northern city of Tripoli and its outlying rural areas for fomenting much of the unrest, might become even more emboldened and expand its operations beyond small-scale raids in an attempt to halt the Syrian rebels' flow of support.

The Lebanese military recent cut off access for journalists and non-residents to the area of Wadi Khaled, north of Tripoli, where as many as 5,000 Syrians have taken refuge. The area is also a hotbed of rebel support, and even sympathetic Lebanese officials are terrified that Syria might escalate the conflict there.

"We have to [take these steps]," one exasperated military intelligence official said in an interview. "Even if you sympathize with the Syrian people, and many of us do, we can't allow Lebanon to go down the same path."