China's 99 Percent?
Image Credit: Ivan Walsh

China's 99 Percent?


It all began with a protest over illegal land sales and rigged elections. According to the investigative Chinese journal Caixin, the local government in Wukan village in southern Guangdong Province had earned over 700 million yuan (about $110 million) from selling collectively-owned farmland, but it disbursed only 550 yuan (roughly US$86) to each villager. Moreover, the highly unpopular village party secretary and director had rigged the local elections, managing to hold on to power for 40 years as a result.  The villagers had been unhappy about the situation for a number of years and have complained by petition since 2009. However, there was no resolution until they finally took to the streets in September.

The good news is that by late November after a few months of protest – some of it violent – the villagers succeeded in ousting the two village leaders. The Chinese media argued at the time that Guangdong, under Party Secretary Wang Yang (a candidate for the Standing Committee of the Politburo in the 2012-2013 leadership transition), was pursuing a new approach to social unrest, one that tried to “balance maintaining stability and basic rights while helping people to express their needs.”

The bad news is that the balance still isn’t quite right. In recent days, the Wukan villagers have seized control of the village, demonstrating against the alleged cover-up of police brutality that led to the death on December 11 of Xue Jinbo, a demonstration leader. The Chinese media have also gone dark. There’s no more talk about the new way of handling protests. On December 14, the acting mayor of Shanwei City Wu Zili said that in regards to organizations planning to “incite trouble,” the government is determined to crack down on the destruction of public property and the obstruction of official business. The local government is now trying to starve the villagers out by setting up five roadblocks with guards all around the village to prevent food and other resources from coming in and workers from leaving.

Eventually the siege will end – but the fundamental challenge to Beijing will not. Every year, despite the country’s impressive economic growth, the number of protests grows. By one estimate, Beijing now contends with 180,000 so-called “mass incidents.” The why of these protests is no mystery: the lack of the rule of law, transparency, and official accountability. These are the structural elements that define the country’s political system and allow corruption to flourish. In the Wukan case, the villagers are protesting corruption in both land sales and the electoral process. Whether the protests are over these issues or the environment or defective products, the root cause is the same.

Beijing’s take away from the Wukan protest probably won’t be much more than “It’s time to launch another [ineffective] anti-corruption campaign.” The real take away, however, is that it is time to listen to what Premier Wen Jiabao had to say a few months ago in Dalian: “We must govern the country by law… We need to uphold judicial justice…People’s democratic rights and interests prescribed in the Constitution must be protected. The most important ones are the right to vote and to stay informed about, participate in, and oversee government affairs.”

Put more bluntly, if the 5th generation of Party leaders doesn’t listen to Wen and seize the initiative on political reform, it’s looking more and more likely that the Chinese people will.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.

John Chan
December 18, 2011 at 22:19

@Milo Jones,
Jealousy, resentment and ill wishes will cause forecast off course terribly. In an uptrend, it never goes up straight, it will pull back or pause from time to time to readjust then move up again, and the highs before the pullbacks are not peaks. Only ignorant and suckers will sell off during the pullbacks because they misjudge the uptrend has peaked.

It seems you are making the same mistake as those ignorant and suckers; as an analyst or forecaster maybe your forecast is as good as those financial analysts before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, they do not know what they are doing, they even can not see such mammoth scale catastrophic financial disaster before them.

John Chan
December 18, 2011 at 05:30

Perhaps Wukan village incident can push China into new direction to make China a more equitable and harmonious society, redistribute rights and wealth definitely are the major tasks. Maybe CCP should review its policies to make China less capitalism more socialism.

John Chan
December 18, 2011 at 05:19

@Mark Jackson,
If NATO tries to help like Iraq and Afghanistan, you are helping the corrupted officials instead of the villagers; the whole China will turn their gun against NATO and forget about punishing those corrupted officials.

Those villagers are more resolve than you can image. They know there is no free lunch. The West should stand aside, so the corrupted officials cannot hide behind the shield of national security, and have to face the justice themselves.

Milo Jones
December 17, 2011 at 19:29

It seems clear that 2011 will be seen as the year that China peaked (or rather belief in boundless and unstoppable Chinese success peaked, along with the absurd notion that China is “overtaking” anything except it’s own own past failings).

The key question is simple what does the bursting of China’s various bubbles mean for the rest of us? For more on that question, see “China’s Present, the World’s Future, and the Pretense of Knowledge” at

Đồng chí Dương
December 17, 2011 at 11:20

Chinese success story made up by the sacrifice of the public of lesser classes. For every project need resources to fund, the resources can be land, natural materials and labors, the outcomes could be the sizes of the projects or big sum of foreign currencies. Now those resources are depleted due to overuse for producing goods to export to achieve CCP’s target, so they are expensive and deadly to touch. Once the essence of sacrifice for the mutual purposes of a great kingdom has gone, or laughed off by reality of unbalance in major aspects of the society (such as unfair in rights and incomes), time for revolutions to redistribute assets, is that Marxist’s 101?

December 17, 2011 at 11:10

Wen is a great leader of China, unlike Hu, Hu does not seek for reform in the country. I am from Hong Kong and my mother is from Shanghai. The government seems to think the general population are stupid and brain washed. I would say more than 70% of the population from Chinese cities especially southern Chinese cities know about the 1989 incident. Everyone complain about the corruption online, most of the online articles and even tv programs talks about the corruption indirectly in china.

Mark Jackson
December 17, 2011 at 04:58

“The local government is now trying to starve the villagers out by setting up five roadblocks with guards all around the village to prevent food and other resources from coming in and workers from leaving.”

I know countries tend to say that internal affairs are that but if this happened in Iraq or Afghanistan at the behest of NATO etc. then it would be deemed a warcrime as its what you could call OTT – especially given the children caught up in the dragnet…

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