What Wukan Really Meant


The seige of Wukan ended peacefully after Guangdong provincial Gov. Wang Yang flew to the rebellious fishing village and cut a deal that replaced corrupt local authorities and ended the land deals that provoked the conflict.  The issues that prompted the uprising aren’t going away – but neither is the nation’s authoritarian government. Comparisons to the Arab Spring and the protests in Russia are a poor fit. Indeed, Wukan does a very good job of showing off the strengths of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the challenges it faces as it tries to hold on to stability and legitimacy.

The protests in Wukan began two months ago over an attempt to seize rural land for commercial development, a widespread issue which is a frequent cause of unrest. It escalated into an uprising in early December, when a villager sent to negotiate with the local government was beaten to death in police custody, infuriating residents already fed up with the corruption of their local leaders.

The conflict rose to the provincial level before being resolved, but it seems to have made little impression on China’s leaders, who have apparently filed it as nothing more than a particularly serious example of the 80,000 to 100,000 “mass incidents” China experiences annually, at least according to official figures.  Beijing's response has been most notable for what hasn’t happened – while the revolutions of the Arab Spring clearly shook Chinese leaders, who responded with a wave of arrests and status quo-friendly media coverage, central officials seem to have been happy to leave Wukan to local authorities.

Land grabs and local corruption are serious challenges for China’s leaders, but Wukan demonstrates well why they are unlikely to prompt a revolution: the government is often ready to give protesters what they want.  The villains in such stories are almost always local officials – low-level functionaries who have long since been passed over promotion and learned to spend their time selling favors to provide for their retirements.

When low-level officials earn pocket money by forcing people off their land for real estate developers, they are frequently violating Chinese law, which mandates relatively generous compensation for forced land sales. And, much more importantly, they are ignoring the directives of Party leaders, who place a high value on stability and see land seizures as both potentially incendiary and – not insignificantly – contrary to the Communist Party’s mission of serving the people.

But repeated mention in high-level speeches by Chinese leaders has done little to resolve the issue as local officials face contradictory demands. Local governments rely on land to fund their budgets – according to some estimates, drawing as much as a third of their revenue from land sales. Under pressure to avoid local conflict while delivering growth and government services, many local officials have come to rely on violent intimidation to end protests before they can attract career-ending attention from their superiors.

Nonetheless, it seems that protesters like the Wukan rebels are ready to put the blame on local officials, appealing to Beijing to protect their rights. In the improvised foreign press center, villagers hung a sign telling journalists: “We are not a revolt.  We support the Communist Party.  We love our country” – although this did little to discourage foreign analysts eager to call revolution.

The villagers of Wukan also had good timing – provincial leader Wang Yang is thought to be in the running for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee in October’s leadership transition, which allowed them to put extra pressure on him to resolve the conflict.  A massacre would have raised doubts about his ability to manage conflict and would have given his enemies ammunition to block his promotion.

Far from being “a rare concession from Beijing,” Wang Yang’s deal was immediately praised in the semi-official People's Daily, which criticized Guangdong officials for being slow to recognize villagers’ grievances, writing: “The Wukan incident could have gone in another, totally different direction – instead of getting worse and becoming a more severe conflict – if villagers’ interests and demands had been taken seriously.”  The People's Daily isn’t a reliable guide to Party leaders’ opinions. But, given what we know about the Hu government’s policy of social management, this seems like a plausible fit for a high-level response to the incident.

To China’s top leaders, protests over local issues are a policy challenge, not an existential threat. Going forward, we should expect to see local conflicts regularly being resolved in favor of protesters. But we should also expect to see a lot more protests – while dangerous, protests are proving to be the most effective tool China’s ordinary citizens have for getting things done.

January 8, 2012 at 23:46

Our Village is facing the same corrupted Land grabs Problem. Do you know where we can get national and international help? thanks for the answer.

John Chan
January 4, 2012 at 00:18

It is call democracy. Everybody’s behaviour is accountable.

Peking Duck
January 3, 2012 at 01:24

Land grabs and sea grabs are the core nature of China’s CCP. Anything discussed here related to the non-ownership grabbing by the Chinese are related and should be encouraged. Hear, hear.. Mr Nguyen.

Hanoi Hilton
January 2, 2012 at 22:35

Can’t you keep to the topic of discussion? Life’s issues doesn’t revolve only around you and what you think and feel.

January 2, 2012 at 14:48

I have been surprised by how freely Chinese are able to protest against their government these days. Of course, it’s always a risk and people often don’t protest against the government directly. However, there are many examples of people standing up to authority and getting a compromise from those in power. Of course, now and again, people also do get beaten to death, and that’s really hard to understand.

Recently, somewhere in Dongbei (I will not say where, so as to protect my anonymity) a large group of people blocked one of the main streets of the small city I am living in. They were protesting a similar land grab situation – but inside the city. I couldn’t drive past the protestors but had to turn around and find another way to get to work.

The police were there but they were calm and in the end officials came out to bargain with the crowd and got them to leave. China has really changed in this respect.

Good article.

January 2, 2012 at 14:44

Further evidence of the ‘daisy chain’ of fear that exists in China …

The man in the street fears corrupt local officials, who can screw him over.
Local officials fear Beijing, who can crack down hard on them.
Beijing fears the man in the street, who can pull down the whole enterprise.

January 2, 2012 at 10:49

It merely means the current corrupt leadership is being replaced by the previous corrupt leadership. The average Chinese are too brainwashed and stupefied to fight for their rights, unless they are educated in a different environment like Singapore or Hong Kong.

Nguyen Hue con
January 2, 2012 at 04:11

China’s CCP land grabs (Wukan, etc) and sea grabs (SCS & ECS) will be the main root causes for the CCP down fall, both within Chia and on the International stage.

There is no such a perfect regime in this World, but there are regimes which are better than others. Communism
in theory is great but, in practice it would never work, this due to the human nature factor; eg. greeds and mostly sharing ruling powers, wealth gaining (from power and corruption profits within the families clans and closed friends connection circles. China’s Wukan is only a small example of the communist regime’s effects and nature. Perhaps, a bigger example will be the case of Kim Jong Il, North Korean’s family ruling class and its evil dictatorship for 3 generations by using communist regime as the tool.

On the International scale, China CCP’s sea grabs intention has helped Japan, India, the US, Vietnam, Burma, Australia, the Philipinnes and ASEAN, etc. coming together. Either sea grabs or land grabs behaviours, they are just simply evil and a part of the communist’s nature of China.

Vikas Sharma
January 2, 2012 at 01:25

Land Grabs a serious issue in china, as was in xinjiang province, for the construction of karakoram highway and the violence relating there-after.

yang zi
January 1, 2012 at 17:51

This makes sense.

This is how democracy matures, challenges and compromises. When people learn to compromise within a legal framework, democracy arrives naturally.

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