Though not as suggestive of strategic transformation as ongoing territorial disputes or rising military expenditure, low-level domestic unrest in coastal farming communities paints an interesting picture of the future of governance and popular political participation in China. And while strife derived from mass urbanization might not inevitably lead to major structural changes in the country, it does bring to light several critical challenges that the People’s Republic will have to overcome as its economy continues to grow.
In the small rural community in Shangpu, Guangdong Province, locals’ livelihoods depend primarily on the cultivation of banana, sweet potatoes, spinach and papaya. But for the past two weeks, police and community groups in the central Guangdong province village have been engaged in a standoff resulting from a shady local government land grab.
According to the local protesters, armed thugs stormed the village last month to crush popular opposition to the new factory. The facility was to be built by a development company that purchased 33 hectares of the community’s most profitable farmland. The head of the company purchasing the land was reportedly a close friend of local Communist Party chief Li Baoyu.
It is being reported that the deal would have rewarded villagers to the modest tune of U.S. $1,000 per acre, a fraction of what the land would be worth in terms of cumulative agricultural output for the community.
The Shangpu villagers quickly united to defend themselves against the dozens of thugs wielding shovels, steel pipes, and other makeshift weapons. Locals managed to beat the thugs back, however, and they eventually retreated into the nearby fields. The villagers then burned the vehicles the thugs had arrived in and quickly began petitioning county, provincial, and national authorities.
In the immediate aftermath of this incident a tense impasse existed between the citizenry and local government forces. Chinese authorities arrested village chief Li and several associates while also nullifying the proposed land deal. Still, villagers refused to deconstruct checkpoints and barricades into the community until all copies of the illegitimate land grab contract were returned to them and help rendered by regional authorities.
Locals blamed the appointment of Li as the impetus for the lawlessness and, consequently, lobbied higher-up officials for the right to elect their own village chief.
Now, however, the relative peace of the two week-long standoff has ended. It is being reported that between 2,000 and 3,000 security personnel sent by the county government cut power and phone lines to Shangpu before storming the village early Sunday morning. Upon arriving the security personnel began firing teargas to disperse crowds and nine individuals have reportedly been arrested while dozens of others have been injured, according to Western media reports. The Financial Times reported that 40 individuals remained hospitalized Wednesday. It is unclear to what extent the security forces’ actions were punitive or reflect the provincial or central government’s stance on the broader issues in question.
In rural parts of China local officials claim to be in charge of the rural collectives that technically own all the land. Amid rising prices and greater demand for expanded industrial capacity in prosperous coastal provinces like Guangdong, this creates a situation in which rural communities are vulnerable to corrupt officials against whom they often have little legal recourse.
Under the country’s present set of laws, value paid in property sales is set at 30 times the value of the land’s annual agricultural output. This latter value, of course, is highly subjective, allowing corrupt officials to adopt an unfair and subjectively skewed determination of the worth of land. And since a citizen’s land is essentially a stewardship on long-term lease from the government, there are almost no oversight controls in place to prevent non-elected Communist Party administrators from bending the rules.
The unrest in Shangpu takes place in the context of a national political debate over ownership and investment development laws as current regulations are increasingly unable to adjudicate between the conflicting interests of local citizens, businesses, and government officials.
After all, as urbanization expands and developers seek to capitalize on the economic opportunities that new land offers, farmers and rural workers will increasingly encounter a mixed bag of rising prices. In some cases this will offer rural citizens greater opportunities. But, at the same time, people will want to ensure that urbanization transforms, rather than destroys, their long-term livelihoods.
Even if reforms are made governance will continue to be a challenge. Much of the demands being made by Shangpu villagers were given to their counterparts in nearby Wukan in a 2011 deal that ended a similar standoff over land. After elections for local government officials in Wukan were held in 2012, then-Guangdong provincial chief Wang Yang— who negotiated the deal with the Wukan villagers and is widely viewed as a leading reformer among China’s senior leadership— suggested that the “Wukan approach” be used in other villages in the coastal province, if not elsewhere in the country.
So far this has failed to transpire and Wang himself was passed over for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 18th National Party Congress in November of last year. Furthermore, Wukan villagers report that free elections have not resulted in their fundamental grievances being addressed.
That being said, as experience is gained, there will likely be significant growth in the political capacity of Chinese communities to dictate lawful government at local levels. This is unlikely to present a major challenge to the Communist system in the foreseeable future – villagers at Shangpu showed nothing but the highest degree of concern for the image of the national governing party following the initial incident.
But this dynamic and incidents like Shangpu do much to illustrate the challenges that will define the future of local governance in China. If issues of accountability and corruption in the entrenched party-business culture are not corrected, the country is sure to encounter rising and more visible unrest among those disadvantaged by outdated laws and nepotism. And measures like those taken on Saturday by county security personnel, even if not punitive, will inevitably exacerbate any tensions inherent in the evolution of China’s local political challenges.
In short, striking the proper balance between popular demands and the systemic issues of a possible slowdown of economic growth is a must for China in the years to come. Otherwise, half measures and lack of progress could prevent sub-state institutions from realizing their fullest potential as conduits of China’s unique form of political participation.
Christopher Whyte is a program assistant at Center for the National Interest and a WSD-Handa Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. He is also an analyst for the geostrategic analytic firm Wikistrat, Ltd.