September 11, 2016. A fine morning in Wukan, a fishing village on the coast of China’s southern Guangdong province. Once troubled by acrimony over the seizure of its collective land, the village is brimming today with goodwill. On Golden Harbour Avenue, and along New China East Street, members of the Public Security Frontier Defence Corps, a division of the armed police, are hard at work sweeping the pavement, pulling weeds and disinfecting public areas.
“By speaking through action,” says Wu Jianjun (吴建军), battalion chief of Lufeng’s Frontier Defence Corps, “we can better lead everyone in being environmentally conscious and making our home more beautiful.”
Today is the perfect day for a clean sweep. In Wukan, all are one big happy family. “We see Wukan as our second native place,” says Wu Bo (吴波), chief of the village’s local armed police depot. “And the local people of Wukan see us as family too.”
Earlier that morning Wu Bo and several others had paid a visit to the home of an elderly villager, taking fresh fruit and moon cakes along for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Seeing that the old man suffered from rheumatism, Wu made sure he received proper treatment from one of the team’s doctors.
At a makeshift clinic set up across from an ancestral temple, medical specialists from the Frontier Defence Corps offer free testing and health advice to elderly villagers, another sure sign that local authorities take the well-being of Wukan’s residents seriously.
This of course is not the Wukan most readers will recognise. On September 13, the day after the above details were reported prominently in Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Party leadership in Guangdong province — right beside an interview in which the mayor of the city of Shanwei said the village’s land dispute had been resolved — the village erupted into open conflict.
Viewers across the world watched as online video showed tight formations of armed police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at villagers, who fought back with rocks and bricks. These police were presumably the same Frontier Defence Corps “soldiers” who two days earlier had swept the village’s streets and talked about building a “peaceful, harmonious, civilised and beautiful Wukan.”
In retrospect, the Nanfang Daily story — reprised elsewhere, including the tabloid Southern Metropolis Daily — seems a cynical and perverse ploy. Consider, for example, that around 3am on September 13, the morning after the appearance of the aforementioned story, police conducted surprise raids on village homes, rounding up those suspected of organising fresh protests over dirty land deals. And then listen to Wu Jianjun, chief of the Frontier Defence Corps in the city of Lufeng, quoted in the harmonious Nanfang Daily story: “Our task today is mostly to do a major dragnet clean of Golden Harbour Avenue and New China East Street. Then we need to disinfect the flower plots, sewers, garbage cans and other key areas, ridding them of rodents.”
As we look back on the late night raids, and on the mass deployment of armed police witnessed later in the day on September 13, the phrase “major dragnet clean” becomes darkly poetic.
Who was responsible for this psalm on the sacred relationship between armed police and villagers in Wukan? Was it, perhaps, a reporter from the provincial Nanfang Daily, visiting the village to witness personally the changes that had, according to the article, brought so much “positive energy” to the community? Was it a reporter for China’s official Xinhua News Agency, the wire service that routinely issues the first and final word on sensitive topics and breaking stories?
The byline on the story at Nanfang Daily is Li Qiang (李强), a bonafide reporter for the newspaper whose bylines regularly appear there. But beside Li Qiang is another name, “special correspondent” Chen Siying (陈思映). In the Chinese media, “special correspondent” is almost uniformly code for the person from a company or agency who supplied copy to the newspaper. Generally, the reporter from the newspaper — though “reporter” is in such cases a charitable title — files the copy with little or no change and adds their own name beside that of the “special correspondent,” without any mention of the latter’s affiliation. In many cases, the exchange also involves payment of the red envelope sort.
Chen Siying isn’t difficult to find. A simple search throws up scores of “special correspondent” results over the past few years, all dealing with law enforcement conducted by the Frontier Defence Corps in the Shanwei jurisdiction, which covers both Lufeng and Wukan village. Chen shares bylines and photo credits in many different media, as for example in this report from the Legal Daily website back in June, which includes credit for a photo taken after police confiscation of more than 700 kilogrammes of drugs.
In the version of Chen Siying’s report from Wukan appearing in the digital edition of the Southern Metropolis Daily on September 12, a black-and-white photo of members of the armed police clearing away shrubs and trees is credited to Chen Yiwu (陈奕武), who also happens to have a photo in the above-mentioned Legal Daily story. Chen Yiwu too is credited in numerous stories dealing with the work of the Frontier Defence Corps, especially in Shanwei and Lufeng. Here, for example, is a story from November 2015 in which he profiles members of Frontier Defence Corps’ anti-drug squad in Shanwei. Both of these “special correspondents” seem to be intimate chroniclers of the work, life and personalities of the armed police in Shanwei.
Which is to say, both the writer and the photographer behind the Nanfang Daily feature on the cordial relations between armed police and villagers in Wukan are members of the Frontier Defence Corps — the very same group we saw firing tear gas and dragging away villagers in those online videos shared right across the world.
And what about the article appearing right next to Chen Siying’s report on September 12, the interview with the mayor of Shanwei, Yang Xusong (杨绪松)? This article, in which Yang says that land issues in Wukan have “already been resolved in accordance with laws and regulations,” is also bylined by Li Qiang, the Nanfang Daily reporter. In this case, however, no “special correspondent” is credited, and it appears that the Nanfang Daily, the official organ of the provincial Party leadership, assigned its reporter to do this interview.
Side by side, this pair of articles suggests two important things. First of all, it appears that there was strong vertical coordination in Guangdong over the issue of Wukan, with endorsement through the provincial newspaper of the approach taken by the Shanwei leadership. Second, it appears that authorities at the city level were given a free rein not just in handling unfolding events in Wukan but also in doling out the facts.
This second point is an especially interesting one in light of the larger politics under President Xi Jinping. Within the sphere of China observation, we often talk about Xi the “strongman” consolidating his grip, Xi “as the core,” or Xi as the COE, the “chairman of everything.” Xi’s centralising grip on the media, which must all be “surnamed Party,” is a crucial part of this consolidation. And yet it seems, in the case of Wukan, that local leaders are being empowered to conduct “public opinion warfare,” to borrow a phrase from the most recent commentary from the editor-in-chief of the Global Times.
Could it be that control of information on sensitive and sudden-breaking news stories is devolving to local authorities under Xi? If that is the case, this would have serious ramifications for his stated objective of combating corruption, effectively giving officials in places like Shanwei an ace card in covering up malfeasance.
As archived by the WiseNews database (300+ mainland newspapers), a total of 58 newspaper, wire and web stories on “Wukan” appeared in mainland Chinese media from September 1 to September 20 (beginning on the 8th). There are substantial overlaps in these stories, meaning that the number of unique reports is far lower. For example, roughly a third of the total (16 articles) is accounted for by the official release on September 8 reporting that Lin Zulian, Wukan’s democratically elected village committee head, had been sentenced to more than three years in prison for accepting bribes. The next four stories on Wukan, all appearing on September 11, the day before the pair of stories about the mayor of Shanwei and the Frontier Defence Corps, were a single Nanfang Daily story offering the most in-depth summary to date of the ongoing land dispute in Wukan from the perspective of the authorities.
The timing of this sweeping historical look at land issues in Wukan and the government’s goodwill in addressing them, just as tensions were escalating inside the village following the jailing of Lin Zulian, suggested it was intended by provincial authorities as the definitive word on the root nature of problems in the village. More importantly, the report signalled to villagers that they should avoid escalation of the dispute, accepting instead the compromise position of the Party leadership. The article gave a supportive nod to local authorities. “With the verdict in the Lin Zulian case, Wukan village has once again come into people’s view,” it said. “Recently, a portion of villagers in Wukan have raised various demands through different means. On this, the Party leadership and governments of both Shanwei and Lufeng have not equivocated or avoided [the issue], but have promoted a negotiated resolution according to laws and regulations of the problems raised by Wukan villagers.”
The article talked about a hitherto unreported local “platform” called “1+7+N,” or alternatively “17N,” created, it said, by authorities in Shanwei to mediate disputes over land-use rights in the vicinity of Wukan. The platform was meant to “resolve land disputes, assign rights to land already returned [to villagers] and allocate household plots” through a panel of negotiators that included representatives from Wukan and its seven adjoining villages as well as representatives from the Shapu Tree Farm (沙埔林场), “experts on land issues” and “relevant government personnel.”
The article concluded by driving a nail into the coffin of Lin Zulian’s legacy as a faithful representative of the people:
In 2012, the villagers chose Lin Zulian to serve as their representative on the village committee to resolve problems of land and corruption. But most unfortunately, Lin Zulian has stepped down from the “altar” for his nonfeasance and his careless conduct as a “fly of corruption.” At his open trial on September 8, Lin Zulian offered this confession to the court: “I will learn my lesson, to personally abide by the law, to do things in accord with the law, and to trust in the judgement of the court.”
With the previously mentioned pair of reports appearing in Guangdong media the next day, September 12, the official narrative on Wukan was firmly in place, crafted by Xinhua News Agency, Nanfang Daily and local authorities in Shanwei. The “soldiers” of the Frontier Defence Corps were by now of course also firmly in place, having evidently used their charitable “dragnet clean” as a pretext for embedding themselves in the village.
The late night raids followed, and after them open conflict between Wukan villagers and the men of the Frontier Defence Corps. It was at this point, halfway through our 58-article body of mainland coverage of Wukan, that the narrative shifted dramatically, and control was handed over to local authorities in Shanwei.
On September 13 and 14, a total of 11 articles appeared in the WiseNews database, essentially just two reports repeated across Chinese media. The first 9 articles were accounts from Nanfang Daily and Xinhua News Agency of the arrest of 13 suspects, noting that “police in Lufeng received the support and cooperation of the masses in the September 13 strike against a small number of people who had illegally gathered in Wukan village.” The accounts, based entirely on information from police in Lufeng (in some cases from an official Weibo account), were virtually identical.
The last two articles were a single release from China News Service, republished the next day in the Southern Metropolis Daily, quoting police authorities in Lufeng as saying they were on the hunt for people who had spread “fake information” about Wukan on the internet.
Lufeng’s stranglehold on information continued over the weekend as several major newspapers in Guangdong, including Nanfang Daily and Guangzhou Daily, the mouthpiece of the Guangzhou leadership, ran another story ostensibly reported from the streets of Wukan. An unidentified “writer” witnessed that “within the village production and life were going on in a peaceful and orderly manner.”
The kicker quote for the article — which bore the headline “A Peaceful Village With Villagers’ Hearts at Ease” — was supplied by a local merchant:
Mr. Wu, who operates a seafood products store at the pier, said that in recent years business had been good during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but sales for several months this year had not been as good as in the past. “The ordinary people all want to peacefully live their days, and those few who want to make a fuss don’t represent the people of Wukan.”
In fact, the report, which can also be seen here in the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, was sourced from Lufeng Online, the official news portal of the Lufeng city government. (The site’s URL, http://lufengshi.net/, means “Lufeng City.”)
On September 20, the top of the Lufeng Online website featured another article that has been given prominent play in China’s media, responding to allegations that Hong Kong journalists were roughed up by Lufeng police on September 14. The article, filed by the official China News Service, is again sourced entirely from the Lufeng police and the city’s information office.
“Lufeng police said . . .”
“According to the Lufeng police . . .”
“According to the Government Information Office of Lufeng City . . .”
Over the past few days, the “dragnet clean” in Wukan has focused on removing foreign and Hong Kong media, and on countering unwanted narratives. The facts on Wukan are still very much the exclusive domain of the local leadership in Shanwei and Lufeng — as evidenced by this September 19 story by China News Service, again sourced from Lufeng Online.
The dominant official narrative is now the familiar scapegoating of “outside media” as troublemakers bent on China’s destruction. A commentary earlier this week in the Global Times argued that, “While the Wukan issue is basically an ordinary case . . . stemming from land compensation, it has been hyped by foreign media and given a political label.” This, the paper said, is precisely how foreign media misbehaved the last time Wukan entered the spotlight: “In 2011, scores of outside media entered Wukan village to ‘do reporting,’ but that ‘reporting’ in fact added fuel to the fire of the situation in Wukan.”
The deeper problem, according to the Global Times, isn’t corruption or the lingering question of land rights but rather the meddling of foreigners and Hong Kongers:
How to avoid excessive interference by outside media, clarifying the facts in a timely manner: this is a problem facing Chinese society.
Wukan has now gone quiet, as much as we can glimpse the village from media inside China. No articles for “Wukan” appear at all today in the WiseNews database. Select for Chinese-language coverage in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other regions and things are nearly as quiet — just four articles, two each in Ming Pao Daily and Apple Daily.
The clean sweep, it seems, is complete.