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.”
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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.