Wukan village located in the Guangdong province of China has been in the news for a very visible mass movement that took place last year. The residents rebelled against the local officials over land grabbing, a burning issue and the prime catalyst of protests in China. Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent acknowledgement of these arbitrary seizures of farmland in China during his February 2012 tour of Guangdong was the first official recognition by the party’s top leadership. The constitution of a freely and fairly elected village committee to supervise the upcoming March elections in Wukan as a result of the uprising raises a few questions: What was the difference between the Wukan movement and other mass movements in China which led the government to yield to the villagers’ demands? What has been the impact on Wukan? Will the Wukan movement set a trend for other villages in China with similar problems?
How did the unrest come about?
In China, the village committee is the lowest level in the administrative system. It is a directly elected body – the only opportunity for such direct elections in China. However, the elections are allegedly manipulated by the local party cadres and independents rarely win. These committees take all decisions on collectively-owned lands in the village.
In September 2011, a deal between a local company, Lufeng Fengtian Livestock, and China’s largest property developers, Country Garden, was finalized with the approval of the Wukan village committee headed by Xue Chang. As news leaked of the USD 157 million sale (of which 70 per cent had allegedly been pocketed by local officials), villagers came out in open protest. They damaged public property and clashed with local officials. The authorities tried to use a carrot-and-stick policy by promising a review of the deal but also threatening to punish them if protests continued. The residents, refusing to bow down, were asked to form a representative committee to carry out talks with the officials.
However, the committee was declared illegal and five leaders were arrested, and one leader, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody. This incensed the protesters still further. The villagers threatened to take their march to the nearby county town of Lufeng and forced the head of the village committee to flee. Villagers also refused to hand over the two leaders accused of starting the riots after the death of Xue Jinbo, whose family refused to sign papers accepting that he died of a heart attack instead of police torture. The Shanwei city government tried to thwart the march by offering higher land compensation than offered previously. The protesters clearly stated that they wanted their land back along with the dead body of their leader and not compensation. The villagers also demanded the appointment of a transparent committee to supervise the upcoming elections scheduled for March.
What was its impact on Wukan?
The Wukan incident was different from other mass incidents in China on the basis of its duration, nature, and impact. It lasted five months and was violent in nature. The villagers continued their protests despite police blockades that prevented persons and provisions from entering the village. In the end, the villagers gained many concessions - the promise of free and fair elections, the arrest of the culprits, investigation of the land deal and ex gratia payments. Moreover one of the protest leaders went on to be selected as Wukan’s party leader. The successful constitution of the eleven-member election committee that will overlook the March elections of the village leadership is described as a watershed moment by many political analysts.
Will there be more Wukans?
The success of the Wukan movement is seen by many as the initiation of the long march to democracy in China. However, one has to be cautious when analyzing this incident; the Western media’s comparison of it to the Arab Spring can be misleading. Most of the reportage by the Western media highlights this as a revolt and an embryonic challenge to the Communist Party of China. However, one must also note that the protest was directed towards corrupt local officials, and not the CPC. The intervention and diffusion of the crisis by the Guangdong provincial governor was seen by the residents as a sign of the responsiveness to local problems by the party’s higher levels. It can be said that the mass incidents are seen more as policy problems than an existential dilemmas by both the party and the people. Wukan might be used as a model for introducing changes at the village level but to hope that it will inspire others to revolt and challenge the CPC seems farfetched at the moment.