Background analysis of the soft solution to Wukan Incident

By He Qinglian on Dec 22, 2011
(translated by kRiZcPEc)

This year is drawing to a close in China with colors brighter than the last: the tragic death of Qian Yunhui, chief of Zhaiqiao village, Leqing, Zhejiang in 2010 ended the year with sadness. This year, however, villagers at Wukan village, Shanwei, Guangdong marked the end of it with their persistent protests, an ending that made the Chinese people feel somewhat relieved. There are still something to worry about though. For example, retaliation from the government in future; and how the core issue that triggered this standoff—land sell would be solved remains to be seen.

Started in September, protests at Wukan village continued into [December], the confrontation between the two sides escalated as time passed by. Just a week earlier, the local authorities of Guangdong still took on a tough stance toward the villagers. They arrested villager representatives Xue Jinbo and others, causing Xue to die a sudden death during detention; and they sent massive police force to siege the village, cutting off Wukan's communication channels with the outside world, and labeling the protests as a result of manipulation by hostile foreign forces. The way the local authorities stepped up their measures in dealing with the incident turned Wukan village into a target that attracted the world's attention, making those who were concerned with the village deeply worried.

But on December 21, the eve of the day villagers announced that they would disperse into several files marching out of the village to stage large-scale public protests, the authorities made a rare concession gesture by agreeing to release the detained villager representatives and return the body of Xue Jinbo, the villager representative who died during police detention. Representatives of Wukan villagers accepted these offers, called off the march, and let a 10-person working group to get into the village to address the many issues villagers complained about, including land problems. Meanwhile at Haimen, another place within Chao-Shan region just like Wukan, an environmental protection movement broke out. The authorities there, too, agreed to public demand and promised to halt the launch of a new power plant.

Some netizens concluded that what Wukan villagers have achieved should be attributed to the improvement in the villagers' fighting techniques, their uncommon perseverance and being skeptical of the government. These factors of course helped. If it wasn't the villagers' perseverance in their protests which was tough yet appropriate and that some died for what they fought for, today's phased results might just not be possible.

Based on my analysis of protests in Guangdong over the years, I spotted in Wukan factors that could also be found in other similar incidents. For instance, the use of patriarchal organization and mobilization which, perhaps out of a lack of understanding of the fact that villagers in many villages had been using geographical and kinship ties to mobilize others when they organized protests, some saw as a new factor.

As early as the end of 1990s, at village elections in Guangdong Province, villagers in many villages opposed the government's use of various means to designate candidates for village official posts. It had almost become the political norm in rural areas of Guangdong that villagers fought for autonomous election that was free of government control.

And the causes of protests are mainly of the following three categories: land acquisition, environmental pollution, and financial problems relating to land acquisition and setup of factories.

In general, the Pearl River Delta region has a developed economy, the populace there is highly capable of economic independence, and are relatively less dependent on the government. If village autonomy is to carried out, Guangdong Province should be the ideal pilot area.

Over the years there have been continual protests in urban and rural areas of Guangdong. Earlier this year, Guangdong province still used stick—instead of carrot—to handle the migrant-worker-dominated protest at Zengcheng. It should be said that the external factors which didn't appear in the first half of the year were what prompted the local authorities of Guangdong to make concession to protesters at Wukan. These external factors, in sum, presented the CCP regime with the toughest of problems, both at home and abroad, so far since its reform in 1978.

Regarding foreign affairs, China suffered a string of setbacks since November this year, and is forced to adopt once again the “keep-a-low-profile” policy as it is slipping into the difficult situation of being isolated by the international community. I have gone through this topic in “Beijing as an Outcast” and would not repeat my arguments here.

And as for domestic governance, Beijing is currently facing another round of shocks since 1989. These shocks came from two directions: –

First, the government is locked in greater-than-ever conflicts with the bottom of society, the promise to offer the populace bread is getting harder to keep. Protests took place throughout the country, allegedly there were over 180 thousand counts of them last year.

Second, the elite class are expressing their worries with the future through the actions they took. A large number of them emigrated and relocated with every possible means the asset they had gathered over the years to other countries. At this juncture, any outbreak of domestic social unrest would intensify their fear which in turn shakes the confidence society has for the future.

For Guangdong chief executive Wang Yang, there is an extra factor to take into consideration apart from what is said above. For years Wang Yang has been chosen by the fourth generation of CCP leadership as a potential member of the fifth. To show he has the necessary political insight and the ability needed for that position, Wang has maintained an open gesture. An advocate for civil society, ease of control over the media and so on, Wang has been seen as a rival of “leftist” Bo Xilai. With just about ten months before he ascends to a higher position, Wang personally would absolutely want no mass rally to end in bloodshed. At this moment, one careless move and his chance of getting promoted would be gone. Therefore, even though local government officials are not willing to offer concession because of local interests, Wang Yang must have demanded them to soften the conflict. This way of addressing the conflict might have been silently permitted by top officials because, at the time when maintaining stability with violent means becomes less and less effective, the authorities need top local officials to try a comparatively softer approach. Moreover, at a time when being mired with tough issues abroad, they would hope incidents at home not to grow bigger.

From the standpoint of the villagers, it is wise of them to call off protests after the authorities accepted their minimum requests. After three months of demonstrations, both the villagers and the local government became deeply tired and wish to have an exit. The soft approach with which Wang Yang addressed the issue provided the two sides just that. For the villagers, they had only two options: either they temporarily agree with the offers and take their time to plan for future moves; or they keep fighting until there is a violent crackdown. Which is the better option to go for is something that only the villagers of Wukan, whose interests are at stake, can judge and decide for themselves.

Just like those eye-catching protests in the past, many have hoped that protests at Wukan could be the first domino triggering the fall of the dictatorship. This time the “majority” of Wukan protests came to a stage like this is evident that China is still not fully ready. Whereas in Tunisia, where the conditions were ripe, the self-immolation of a hawker could burn away the throne of a dictator. In fact, what kind of incident could become the starting point of democratization has completely nothing to do with the wishes of those involved. It depends entirely on the situation of the community which those involved are in. This time, the way the authorities handled Wukan incident has only met the minimum requests of the villagers; how the land issues would be solved has not been touched upon at all, yet the country is already cheering and Wang's reputation rose above that of Bo Xilai all of a sudden. These phenomena indicate China is at the stage where people yearn for open despotism, just like Tunisia back in the early 1990s. It is undeniable that this is public opinion, at least this is mainstream public opinion.

There are a few questions remain to be solved: first, how the dead knot of land issues at Wukan is to be untied; second, after the dead knot is untied, would other regions follow suit; third, would the cessation of land acquisition be institutionalized. If all this can be achieved, then it means Wukan protests could give rise to an institutionalized feedback system. Otherwise, it means the authorities have merely chosen a soft approach over the rough one in dealing with protests.