The most contentious issue today in China, as has been true for the past decade, is land appropriation. What we just witnessed in Wukan, with peasants organizing to defend their land and livelihood, has occurred frequently over the past decade, and will continue unabated, but with little effect, in the next.
Wukan was powerful because it provided a neat “Good Earth” narrative to understand the otherwise messy reality of China’s land grab. Already, we are using Wukan as a frame of reference to understand struggles over land: Here’s the Shanghaiist’s Kenneth Tan drawing a cause-and-effect relationship between Wukan and a new struggle:
“Guangdong party chief Wang Yang may have won praise for his light-handed approach in dealing with Wukan, but has he actually opened the floodgates for a wave of land grab protests? Yesterday, 1,000 villagers rallied at the Guangzhou city government headquarters as the provincial people's congress met elsewhere in the city for the closing ceremony of its annual session.”
Is there actually a connection between Wukan and this new protest? Will Wukan spark a wildfire of land grab protests around China? What was the real lesson of Wukan?
In 2001, I spent several months traveling around China – Shenyang, Jilin, Changchun, Chongqing, and Zhengzhou – interviewing villagers, and their main complaint was losing their land without fair and adequate compensation. But their complaints were also individual and local, and different individuals employed different strategies – suing the government in local courts, petitioning for the intervention of higher authorities (shangfang), petitioning even higher authorities (Falun Gong and underground Christianity), but generally just drinking a lot and cursing corrupt officials.
And because these complaints were individual and local, the foreign media was unaware of how commonplace these complaints were throughout the aughties, and local officials dealt with them on an ad hoc basis. In those rare instances when leaders and organizers arose among the villagers, the local officials divided and conquered by using carrots and sticks. They would try bribing one of the leaders to sow internal dissent and confusion, and if that didn’t work then what did was arresting all the leaders, and paying off the villagers; again, land complaints were individual and local in China.
When I was a young and impetuous reporter I attributed China’s land grab to the greed and corruption in the Communist Party. But now that I actually work in the periphery of the Communist empire as a Beijing public school administrator I can see that greed and corruption aren’t quite as commonplace as I once imagined.
Believe it or not, Chinese officials are human too, and they are driven by the same goals and concerns as bureaucrats and managers operating in any society. They want to protect their position, and rise within the hierarchy by pleasing their superiors. Above all, they’re risk adverse.
But, if so, then why do they appropriate land, an activity fraught with costs and risks? Consider the costs of land appropriation, if you were a local official: You have to devote a large staff to negotiate with villagers, and if negotiations don’t work then you have to deploy policemen to remove villagers off the land, and pay spies to ensure they do not organize. Consider Wukan, and how expensive it was to deploy all those riot police and equipment to lay siege to the village.
The main issue, though, is of risk. If the issue draws media attention, as it did in Wukan, higher authorities might investigate, and even in the unlikely situation you are clean there’s a great risk that you will be passed over for promotion, and you’d stuck be in a place like Wukan for the rest of your life. Also, what if peasants decide to take justice into their own hands?
And the mandarins in Beijing have enough spies (official media reporters) around the country to know how explosive the land grab issue is in China, and they’ve read enough history to know that it’s this spark that has ignited many an internal rebellion.
So, if grabbing land is costly, risky, and threatens the regime, why is it so commonplace? Because neither the Communist Party honchos in Beijing, nor their local minions in Wukan and Kanwu, have a choice in the matter.
The Party’s authority and legitimacy are predicated on guaranteeing at least 8 percent GDP growth a year, and economic growth is the mandate of all Party officials. If you’re Ningbo or Yantai or any large Chinese urban center with an entrepreneurial population and large resources then that’s not a problem. But if you’re a rural township of subsistence farmers then your best shot at producing the numbers you need to win praise and promotion is to grab that worthless land and put a factory or a condo on it. The magic of economic statistics is that, even if the factory or condo is empty, the value of land shoots up, and so does your career prospects.
Land grabbing is the Chinese equivalent of alchemy, and this quick immediate economic fix is just too addictive for local officials to say no to. This is a problem not just commonplace in the villages, but everywhere in China.
Consider the Chinese public school system, which focuses on test scores and college enrollment statistics. The system destroys students’ creativity and curiosity, independence and imagination, but as long as you get eighty percent of your students into tier one colleges you’re promoted and rewarded as a brilliant educator – just like magic!
No official was arrested because of the Wukan uprising. That’s because, as everyone knows in China, those officials were just doing their job.