Thursday, March 04, 2021

Lost Course: How to Undermine a Revolution

When the people of Wukan in southeast Guangdong threw out their corrupt village council and elected a slate of democratic reformers, outsiders hoped it was the start of something big. Governing is indeed always a trickier proposition than protesting, but the Party and its rigged system did its best to really hamstring the incoming councilors, who were also plagued by their own naivete, vanity, and ambition. Jill Li documents the entire tragedy as it unfolded in Lost Course, which opens virtually this Friday.

Wukan citizens were so incensed when the anonymous “Patriot #1” exposed the entrenched local Communist Party council had sold fertile farm land held by village as a public trust to real estate developers to line their own pockets, they took to the streets. However, they surprised everyone when they stayed there, demonstrating day after day. Their anger only grew after protest leader Xue Jinbo died under “mysterious circumstances,” while in police custody. Eventually, the Guangdong Party authorities intervened, agreeing mistakes had been made and ostensibly granting Wukan greater latitude to reform their own local governance.

Li captures the initial exhilaration of Wukan’s first round real free-and-fair elections, but there is also a nagging sense of foreboding when a key protest leader who initially only seeks a seat on the temporary committee that would oversee the council election, opts at the last minute to run for council office instead. Logically, reclaiming the village’s wrongly sold land is everyone’s top priority, but nobody really has a concrete notion of how to do that within the CCP’s legal and political bureaucracy. As a result, they inevitably disappoint the impatient townspeople.

Lost Course is sort of like water torture (that is not meant in the critical way it might sound like), because we see drip-by-drip how the Wukan democratic coalition fractures, gets distracted, loses confidence, and eventually turns on each other. Not surprisingly, they had help losing their way. In fact, it seems suspiciously plausible several protestors-turned-local politicians were set up on the corruption charges, which they admittedly blundered into.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned for reformist protest movements in
Lost Course. You can definitely see parallels between the “9/21 Incident” veterans and Yanukovych’s disappointing post-Orange Revolution Ukrainian government. However, Li’s doc still presents a damning look at the corrosive influence of the CCP on Chinese civil society. In fact, some of the final scenes of the documentary are those of riot police rampaging down Wukan streets yet again in 2016, after arresting dozens of “usual suspects” in the middle of the night.

Li had amazing access to the 9/21 protest leaders. Frankly, sometimes their candor is uncomfortable, because they are so guileless (of course that is not universally true). Regardless, this film is definitely like a giant no-spin zone, in which history is recorded unfiltered and unvarnished.

There is no narration and only intermittent contextual captions throughout the three-hour
Lost Course, but the narrative thread is always clear and compelling. If you can’t follow the events through the dramatic protest footage and the unguarded interview segments then you probably need another dose of Ritalin. Li shows us how the promise of Wukan was lost in raw and brutally honest terms. Very highly recommended, Lost Course opens virtually this Friday (3/5).