Features | Society | East Asia

Occupy Beijing?

Rapid economic growth hasn’t been able to stem the rising tide of discontent in China. Even as the economy has soared, the number of protests has jumped. So what’s really wrong?

The outbreak of spontaneous mass protest against corruption and abuse of power in China is showing no signs of abating.  In the latest instance, which received sustained Western press coverage, thousands of villagers in Wukan, a farming community in Guangdong Province, “occupied” their village for nearly two weeks before successfully extracting important concessions from the provincial government, which had to dispatch a deputy party secretary to negotiate with the villagers. The specific trigger for this unusually large mass protest is a common scourge plaguing Chinese farmers: the theft of their land by local officials.  Although farmers in China have, nominally at least, 30-year leases on their state-owned land, local officials often sell leases, for a huge profit, to commercial developers without bothering to consult the affected farmers. The lion’s share of proceeds from such illegal transactions go into the coffers of local governments and the pockets of corrupt officials, with the farmers, now landless and without income, receiving a pittance.

The villagers in Wukan are among millions of the victims of this widespread practice in China. Illegal land seizures (along with forced evictions in urban areas) have become the most common cause of collective protests and riots in China these days. Estimates by Chinese scholars suggest they account for roughly 60 percent of the so-called “mass incidents” recorded by Chinese authorities. Unlike the villagers in Wukan, who have won a promise from senior Guangdong officials to review the illicit land deals, the majority of farmers whose land was stolen have received little help from the government.

Because of the size, duration, and outcome of the protest in Wukan, analysts of Chinese politics are tempted to view this incident as a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps this incident will encourage aggrieved farmers elsewhere to organize and protest in a similar fashion? Perhaps the soft handling of Wukan’s protest suggests the Communist Party will behave differently in responding to social unrest?

One shouldn’t read too much into one incident. The most probable reason for the peaceful settlement of this incident had to do with succession politics in Beijing, as the party secretary in Guangdong, a hot contender for a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, could have endangered his own chances had the protest ended in a bloodbath. Unusual political circumstances forced local officials to behave with rare prudence and restraint. Nevertheless, the Wukan incident should worry Chinese Communist Party leaders.

In the short term, China is most likely entering another period of high social unrest. Indeed, the most senior party leader in charge of domestic security recently sounded a dark warning about rising social instability.  The specific cause he cited was the expected economic slowdown in China, which faces falling export demands, a deteriorating real estate market, and mounting bad loans in the financial system. While it’s true that poor economic performance will dent the legitimacy of the party and rising unemployment will swell the ranks of the disaffected, the causes of social protest in China aren’t cyclical, but structural. In other words, ordinary Chinese citizens revolt against local authorities not because of temporary economic hardships, but because of systemic and pervasive abuse of power and petty despotism perpetrated by the agents of the one-party state.

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To see why this is the case, one simply needs to plot the growth of the Chinese economy alongside the increase of reported mass protest incidents. The number of mass protest rises irrespective of China’s growth performance.  In fact, the rate of growth in mass protest exceeds the rate of China’s GDP growth. In 1993, the authorities reported 8,709 such incidents. In 2005, 87,000 such incidents were reported.  Perhaps in denial of this grim reality, Beijing has since then simply stopped releasing official data.  However, Chinese sociologists estimate that the number of mass incidents reached 180,000 last year.  What’s notable about this set of numbers is that, if anything, economic growth fuels social discontent in China. The size of the Chinese economy has more than doubled in the last decade. The number of mass incidents rose roughly four times in the same period.

This counter-intuitive observation brings us to another soul-searching question: why is economic growth making an increasing number of ordinary Chinese people upset? Three answers come to mind.

First, the benefits of economic growth in China aren’t being equitably shared, with the economic and political elites gaining the most. As in the West, inequality in China has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. Today, income disparity in China is approaching Latin American levels. More important, because political connections and corruption are critical to economic success in China’s crony-capitalist autocracy, most ordinary people view wealth amassed by the elites as illegitimate. This creates a social environment in which resentment against the rich and the powerful can readily find expression in protests and riots.

Second, China’s economic growth, impressive in number, is actually low in quality. Expansion of the economy is achieved by undercutting social services (such as healthcare, poverty reduction, and education) and neglecting the environment. Deteriorating social services can stoke discontent among ordinary people, who rely on them much more than the elites. Worse still, environmental degradation, a direct result of Beijing’s blind focus on GDP growth, has now become a major cause of social protest. The Ministry of Environmental Protection admits publicly that mass incidents triggered by environmental pollution have been growing at double-digit each year (although it has withheld the actual numbers).

Third, social protest is an inevitable response by ordinary people to systemic corruption, repression and petty despotism that defines a one-party regime. In such a system, the agents of the regime wield enormous power but are subject to little accountability. Their use of coercion and violence against defenseless citizens is routine and habitual. In the case of the Wukan protest, the spark that ignited the mass incident was the death of a representative sent by the villagers to negotiate with local authorities.  He was believed to have been tortured by the police. Because this system produces innocent victims daily, it should at least expect its victims to rise up in self-defense.

It’s therefore clear that mass social protest has become a permanent feature of the Chinese political system. Although such protest, by itself, won’t dethrone the Communist Party, it does weaken the party’s rule in subtle ways. Trying to maintain control over a restive population is forcing the party to expend ever-more resources on domestic security. Letting such routine protest – amplified by the Internet and microblogs – occur makes the party look weak and incompetent. Having tens of millions of disgruntled citizens also means that potential opposition movement can find political allies among China’s down-trodden masses. Worst of all, in a political crisis, these enemies of the regime could all rise in revolt spontaneously.

Perhaps Chinese domestic security officials should be even more worried. Today it’s Wukan. Could Beijing be next?