China Power

Don’t Forget Wukan

The protest in the village of Wukan may have faded from the headlines. But it holds clues about the future.

It was easy to get swept up in the Wukan moment. A committed band of protestors stands up to corrupt officials and seizes control of the village. They demand that the officials return ill-gotten land, call for free and fair elections, and seek the body of one of their leaders they believe has been beaten to death while in official custody. After a several-day standoff, senior provincial officials swoop in and hand the villagers an unequivocal victory: Land, elections, and their leader’s body.

Only not quite. Now that the world’s attention has moved elsewhere, so too, apparently, has the need for Chinese officials to do the right thing. According to a recent report from the Straits Times (pay wall), the body of the protest leader, Xue Jinbo, has yet to be returned to his family; authorities reportedly want to send the body directly to a cemetery. No elections have been scheduled, and the discussions over the land issues have stalled. Perhaps of greater concern, one villager has committed suicide, reportedly after having been harassed relentlessly by authorities who believed he had been part of the protests.

More bad news comes from outside Wukan. Zheng Yanxiong, the uncompromising top party official in Shanwei county (which oversees Wukan) who said pigs would fly before the foreign media could be trusted, has amassed more power after being named the head of the local legislature.

Still, the cloud over Wukan may have a silver lining. The village has become lodged in the political consciousness of the Chinese people. The director of the Political Science Department at the Central Institute of Socialism Wang Zhanyang has used Wukan to call publicly for democratic reform, including the separation of government and party, not only at the village but also at the county level. Cloaking part of his long discourse in Deng Xiaoping-speak, Wang has brought Wukan into the mainstream of Chinese political debate.

Wang’s argument would no doubt resonate as well with many in the broader Chinese public. Earlier this week, tens of thousands of netizens rallied against a local People’s Congress deputy from Foshan, a large city not too far from Wukan, who said – in apparent reference to Wukan – that the public can be unruly when it was spoiled and that just as it was difficult to make a spoiled child obedient, ordinary civilians should be disciplined, not given preferential treatment.

It’s too easy to assume that the initial resolution of a problem in China represents the last word. That’s almost never the case. Now we know that we should continue to pay attention to what happens in Wukan.  It matters a lot – not only for the people of Wukan, but also for our understanding of the evolving debate and real potential for wide scale political change in China.

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.