What Wukan Really Meant

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What Wukan Really Meant

Protests in China aren’t seen as an existential threat by leaders, but a policy issue. Still, citizens are likely to increasingly see them as the best way of ensuring things get done.

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.