Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Premier Li Keqiang stressed in his speech at the just-closed National People’s Congress that corruption under the Xi-Li leadership will have “nowhere to hide” in China, and that seniority will be no protection: “No matter who or how senior an official is, if they violate Party discipline and the law, they will be seriously dealt with and punished in line with the law because everybody is equal before the law.

Most of last year’s 51,306 officials investigated in 37,551 corruption cases were not all that senior, though there have been at least 22 ministerial-level investigations since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, which is not nothing. But if zero tolerance were taken literally, the sheer volume of cases would overwhelm not only the formal justice system in China, already down 210 prosecutors punished for various misdeeds in 2013, but also the various parallel systems, such as “double regulations” for cases involving CCP officials.

So choices have to be made about who gets priority for investigation, and these choices can be very instructive. Premier Li highlighted land-use transfers as one of the areas of most concern to citizens and promised a comprehensive audit of cases. Of the hundreds of thousands of disputes between villagers and officials over the loss of their land without proper compensation over the past few years, none is more famous than that of Wukan in Guangdong province, where in December 2011 a massive, peaceful protest developed after the death in custody of democratically elected village leader Xue Jinbo who had been leading the fight for the recovery of village land corruptly sold off by former village head Xue Chang.

A siege of the village by hundreds of armed police was eventually lifted and the villagers were allowed to elect their own leaders in March 2012 to continue the campaign to reclaim their land, in what was hailed at the time as an example to follow for the democratic, peaceful resolution of other land disputes. Two years on, little of the land has actually been recovered, and what has been given back is in very poor condition, while further protests in the spring of 2013 threatened to turn violent.

So who in Wukan is being investigated for corruption? Is it Xue Chang, the man who did the land deals in the first place and whom villagers suspect of being behind agents provocateur, strangers to the area, seen at the 2013 protests trying to stir up violence? Or is it Xue’s bosses, who either turned a blind eye to his grand larceny of village land over a period of years or were just too incompetent to notice it? It’s certainly not his fellow seller-off of land, Xue Yubao, since appointed deputy CCP secretary of a neighbouring township in a promotion from his Wukan role and tipped to be the next head of Wukan village as the old guard completes its comeback.

No, it’s Yang Semao, one of the elected village leaders from March 2012, and the only one of the land activists who was going to stand in the upcoming village elections. Some of those who decided not to have cited understandable disillusionment with the prolonged and mostly unsuccessful struggle to get back the villagers’ land, but locals also say that Yang was the only person trying to make the next election a properly democratic one, mobilizing villagers to participate and ensure a real choice of candidates at the poll. Activist Zhang Jianxing explained that “Many villages are angry about the return of former cadres, but are afraid to speak out.”

So the only person actually facing a charge of corruption in one of most notorious sites of corrupt disposal of farmland in the whole of China was the last man standing from the anti-corruption activists who risked their lives to get justice for the villagers back in 2011. It’s an odd sort of anti-corruption campaign by the CCP’s top leaders which would single out Yang Semao in as target-rich an environment for corruption-hunters as Wukan – or it would be, if that very word “campaign” didn’t give the game away. This is not, after all, the normal working of an impartial legal system acting wherever it finds wrongdoing. It is a political campaign which enables the new CCP leadership to be seen to be doing something about corruption, while at the same time providing them with the ideal weapon to use against anyone they or others lower down the power structure wish to take out of contention.

The fate of other elected village leaders who tried to make a stand against corrupt land deals is not a happy precedent for Yang Semao. As well as Xue Jinbo’s death in custody which sparked off the Wukan protests, Zhejiang’s Qian Yunhui Qian, elected village head in Zhejiang, died December 2010 after leading a five-year campaign for proper compensation to villagers whose land was taken to build a power station. Having been detained three times in five years and served three and a half years in total, Qian was found dead from an apparent road accident, but is widely thought to have been deliberately killed to stop him running for another term as elected village head. Officials investigating his death disregarded testimony by two witnesses that three masked and gloved men pushed Qian under wheels of the truck. The truck driver was convicted of causing Qian’s death, but was released from jail early.

As well as being careful crossing the road, Yang would also be well advised to stay well away from the windows and rooftops of wherever he is being held (his wife hasn’t been told), as these are prime spots for mysterious deaths in custody where a scapegoat is needed for local corruption and the genuinely guilty are untouchable. His very best hope is that he will be released once the election is over, possibly after confessing to some relatively minor misdemeanour, but if local power-holders want him convicted, he will be. If one of Wukan’s anti-corruption heroes is in due course paraded on television in handcuffs admitting to taking bribes, it may only be because it is “not convenient”, as activists typically say in a phone-call to reporters when the police are standing right next to them, for him to say it ain’t so. What it will really mean, in all likelihood, is that yet another citizen has paid the price for trying to use the channels available to him to seek justice, while the truly guilty in Wukan remain completely safe.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Jackie is a Regular Contributor.