Wang Yang
Wang Yang, the Communist Party secretary of Guangdong Province and a member of the Politburo in Beijing, is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in China’s leadership today. Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in New York Times, he has been given room to experiment and has begun advocating something he calls mind liberation—primarily an effort to change the culture of his bureaucracy and open it up to new ways of thinking. Right now he is focused on trying to shift dirty, low-wage manufacturing out of Guangzhou to the countryside, where jobs are still scarce. And he is trying to attract clean industries and services to the city. His goal, he said, was a more low-carbon economy.” [Source: Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, August 31, 2008]

A native of Anhui Province nicknamed “Young Marshal," Wang Yang is not a princeling but he is viewed as a contender for the Politburo’s standing committee. He is widely seen as a bit more open-minded and tolerant than other top officials. Shenzhen, a special economic zone in Guangdong, has been experimenting in giving a freer rein to NGOs. The province’s newspapers are among the country’s most spirited (for which they are bitterly attacked by leftist websites). But Mr Wang has a cautious streak, too. The official media reported this week that 80,000 “potentially unstable people” had been evicted from Shenzhen in preparation for a sporting event this summer. [Source: The Economist, April 2011]

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Like President Hu Jintao, widely seen as his ally, Mr. Wang, 56, comes from modest circumstances in Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces. Forced to leave school at 17 to work in a food factory, he got his political start in the early 1980s in Anhui’s Communist Party Youth League, serving under Mr. Hu, who led the organization. One political insider said Wan Li, the Anhui party secretary who served as China’s vice premier through most of the 1980s, first noticed Mr. Wang in Anhui and remained an influential backer. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, December 30 2011]

After impressive stints in local, provincial and national jobs, Mr. Wang gained two posts in 2007: membership on the 24-member Politburo and appointment as party secretary of Guangdong, China’s most populous province and the government’s minilaboratory for more progressive policies. Almost immediately, he talked of “thought emancipation” and the need to pioneer changes—and just as quickly hit head winds.

“He is very close to Hu Jintao,” Willy Lam told AFP. “Apart from Wen Jiabao, who is famous for continuing to put emphasis on political reform, Wang Yang is the Politburo member who has talked the most about political reform.”Analysts point to an incident in December in Wukan, a village in Guangdong, that saw protesting residents win rare concessions from the government after they faced off with authorities for over a week in a row over land and graft. “That's a new way of doing things. Wukan is considered to be a progressive model for tackling mass unrest,” said Lam. Aside from potential clues about the leadership transition, analysts say the parliamentary session is unlikely to rock the boat. [Source: AFP, March 1, 2012]

Wang Yang’s Political Career

According to, the Beijing government website: Wang Yang is an ethnic Han and native of Suzhou, Anhui Province, born in March 1955. He joined the CPC in August 1975 and began working in June 1972 after graduating from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee and completing a university education. He holds a Master of Engineering degree. [Source:]

Wang is a Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, secretary of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee, and chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chongqing Municipal People's Congress.

From 1972 to 1976 Wang was a worker and workshop director of a food factory in Suxian Prefecture, Anhui Province. From 1976 to 1979 he was a Teacher of the May 7th Cadre School of Suxian Prefecture, Anhui Province; deputy head of one of its teaching and research section; and member of the school's CPC committee. In 1979-1980 he was a student majoring in political economy in a program for theoretical publicity cadres at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee1980-1981 Teacher of the Party school of the CPC Suxian Prefectural Committee in Anhui Province.

In 1981-1982 Wang was Deputy secretary of the CYLC Suxian Prefectural Committee in Anhui Province. In 1982-1983 he was Chief of the publicity department of the CYLC Anhui Provincial Committee. In 1983-1984: Deputy secretary of the CYLC Anhui Provincial Committee. From 1984 to 1987 he was Deputy director of the Anhui Provincial Commission for Physical Culture and Sports and deputy secretary of its Leading Party Members' Group. In 1987-1988 he was Director of the Anhui Provincial Commission for Physical Culture and Sports and secretary of its Leading Party Members' Group.

From 1988 to 1992 Wang was Deputy secretary of the CPC Tongling Municipal Committee, Anhui Province; acting mayor and mayor of Tongling (1989-1992: studied Party and government administration in an on-the-job undergraduate program of the Correspondence School under the Party School of the CPC Central Committee). In 1992-1993 he was Director of the Anhui Provincial Planning Commission, secretary of its Leading Party Members' Group, and assistant governor of Anhui Province1993-1993 Deputy governor of Anhui Province. From 1993 to 1998 he was a Member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Anhui Provincial Committee, and deputy governor of Anhui Province.

From 1993 to 1995 Wang participated in an on-the-job graduate program run by the Department of Administration Science, Chinese University of Science and Technology, and graduated with a master's degree in engineering; March-May 1997: student of a further studies course for provincial and ministerial level cadres at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee). In 1998-1999 he was Deputy secretary of the CPC Anhui Provincial Committee, and deputy governor of Anhui Province.

From 1999 to 2003 Wang was Vice minister of the State Development and Planning Commission, and member of its Leading Party Members' Group (September-November 2001: student of a further studies course for provincial and ministerial level cadres at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee). In 2003-2005 Wang was the Deputy secretary general of the State Council (at the ministerial level, in charge of the routine work of its General Office), and deputy secretary of the Leading Party Members' Group of its organs.

In 2005-2006 Wang was Secretary of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee. In 2006-2007 he was Secretary of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee, and chairman of the Standing Committee of Chongqing Municipal People's Congress. In 2007 he became a Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, secretary of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee, and chairman of the Standing Committee of Chongqing Municipal People's Congress, secretary of the CPC Guangdong Provincial Committee. His other titles include: Alternate member of the Sixteenth CPC Central Committee, and member of the Seventeenth CPC Central Committee and its Political Bureau.

Wang Yang Liberalism

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “A lifelong party stalwart and a current member of the 25-seat Politburo, Mr. Wang would not be mistaken for a Western-style liberal. He does not call for free elections, and he rarely strays far from the agenda set by Beijing. But at a time when the party apparatus has embraced a clenched-fist approach to news media censorship, rural unrest and demands for social justice, Mr. Wang stands out for his paeans to political liberalization and the virtues of American-style individualism. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, November 5, 2012]

“We should eradicate the wrong concept that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government,” he said this year. Known for his cherubic smile and a refusal to follow the pack of party elders who dye their graying hair jet black, Mr. Wang, the son of a laborer, is fond of folksy sound bites that sometimes take aim at the party elite. Since his appointment as Guangdong’s party chief in 2007, he has called on provincial officials to publicly reveal their assets and ordered government departments to communicate with the public via Sina Weibo, China’s wildly popular microblog platform. [Ibid]

In June 2012, after one of several recent visits to Singapore, he returned home to extol the city-state’s soft-glove approach to authoritarian rule. “If China doesn’t reform,” he said, “we will be slow boiled like frogs.” When he was faced with an insurrection last year in the fishing village of Wukan, Mr. Wang displayed a knack for coolheaded crisis management: he called off the riot police, tossed out Wukan’s corrupt party officials and allowed villagers to elect a new slate of leaders. [Ibid]

In addition to a few pilot projects that reduced red tape and shrank an unwieldy bureaucracy, Mr. Wang’s most notable accomplishment was to ease the restrictions that hobble nongovernmental organizations in much of China. The changes have led to a flowering of local civil society groups, but the reforms appear to have come with some caveats. In Shenzhen, labor rights advocates say they have been dogged by local officials who object to their work and who they say forced seven such groups out of their offices. [Ibid]

Wang Yang’s Call for Reforms

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, “On the economic front, he tried to use administrative levers to replace low-end, heavily polluting workshops and factories with high-tech, value-added industries. That prompted fierce resistance from local officials, who argued that deserting the factories that drove Guangdong’s export-based economy would be fiscal suicide. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, December 30 2011]

Lin Jiang, an economics professor at Sun Yat-sen University, said Mr. Wang tried to carry out a basically sound policy too hastily, costing him crucial local support. Still, like other academics, Mr. Lin credits him with reaching outside traditional circles for fresh points of view.

On the political front, Mr. Wang began a campaign for “Happy Guangdong,” derided by critics as empty sloganeering. Mr. Wang launched the "Happy Guangdong" campaign in 2011, pledging to focus on improving living standards while slowing GDP growth in the province of 104 million people that pioneered China's economic reforms and has long been seen as a bellwether of the country's future. But he also spoke more seriously of officials’ need to heed the ‘sunken voices’ of the masses. In June, he declared that “the economic rights of some of the grass roots have not been protected and their political rights are not being realized.” Solving those problems, he added, is more important than ‘singing and praising glories.” Many took that as a jab at Bo Xilai, the ambitious party secretary of the Chongqing municipality who has pushed to revive Maoist culture and is often portrayed as Mr. Wang’s rival. Mr. Wang's campaign has been undermined by a series of high-profile labor and land disputes this year, including riots by hundreds of migrant workers in the cities of Zengcheng and Chaozhou. The rioters attacked government offices and overturned police cars over several days in June.

Wang Yang, Media Criticism and Intra-Party Democracy

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: “Guangdong also is ahead of most other provinces and major cities in implementing “intra-party democracy.” Together with Jiangsu Province, Guangdong has been a pioneer in the relatively open way in which medium-ranked to relatively senior cadres are selected. Candidates for positions up to the level of vice directors of provincial departments have to pass a public-opinion test; short-listed candidates also must engage in public debates that are sometimes broadcast on local television. At the Guangdong Party Congress held the Standing Committee members of the Guangdong Party Committee were chosen through chae or competitive elections. Thus, the 906 congress delegates cast secret ballots to pick the 13 top office-bearers out of 14 short-listed candidates. In the past, such senior cadres in Guangdong as well as other regions were “elected” through denge or non-competitive elections. [Source: Willy Lam, Source: China Brief, May 25, 2012]

“Equally significantly, “Young Marshal” Wang has allowed a civil society with Chinese characteristics to play a relatively big role in provincial affairs. Guangdong leads the country in the latitude that is granted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in areas, such as social welfare and environmental protection. This follows Wang’s idea that his administration should make the switch from “all-embracing governance” to “limited governance.” He pointed out that social organizations and NGOs should be allowed to “handle some areas of social management and social services” . Last year, Wang instructed the Guangdong Civil Affairs Department and other units to simplify procedures for the registration of NGOs and other minjian, or “people-sector.” organizations. According to public administration Professor Hu Huihua in Guangzhou-based Jinan University, Guangdong officials in charge of NGOs “have an open attitude” toward non-governmental associations. “The future direction is clear,” he noted, “The Guangdong government seems set to give more powers to minjian organs.”

Guangdong also has chalked up a reputation for a relatively high tolerance for media criticism of the party and government. Such well-known publications asvSouthern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan News have won praise for their daring treatment of controversial political figures and topics. For example, these two papers have run articles about dissidents and officially-censured public intellectuals ranging from rebel artist Ai Weiwei to avant-garde journalist Li Datong. Wang has often urged reporters to “give voice to the masses.” In April 2012 the party chief raised eyebrows when he noted that he would provide plainclothes police to protect journalists who did muck-raking stories on fake and pirated products in the province. [Ibid]

“Not long after Wang took up his post as Guangdong’s party chief in late 2007, he caused a stir by calling upon the nation’s cadres and intellectuals to initiate the CCP’s “third wave of thought liberation.” The first wave of thought liberation was a reference to Deng Xiaoping’s dismantling of the Maoist “whateverism” (“ whatever Mao Zedong said is correct” ) and the second wave consisted in Deng’s dictums on the resumption of economic liberalization, which were given during his 1992 tour of southern China. The “third wave” referred to a judicious mixture of economic as well as political reform. [Ibid]

Are Wang Yang’s Liberal Credentials Overblown?

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Party insiders who have followed his career, which includes his unremarkable stint as the party boss of Chongqing, say his reformist credentials are overblown. He has repeatedly tacked away from the expectations of bolder change that he himself encouraged, and even die-hard supporters admit that his vows to fight corruption, reduce the power of vested interests and increase government transparency have had, at best, mixed results. “The thunder is loud, but the rain has been rather light,” said Mr. Xiao, the academic, who nonetheless counts himself an admirer. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, November 5, 2012]

Some of Mr. Wang’s boldest ideas—like shifting Guangdong’s dependence on cheap exports to innovative and environmentally friendly industries—came to naught. Meanwhile, critics say, he has used an iron glove during the past year in a cynical attempt to burnish his appeal to the leaders up north who will decide his political future. [Ibid]

He initiated an aggressive anticorruption drive that resulted in scores of arrests, and, more ominously, tightened censorship rules ahead of the party congress. And his decision to solve the Wukan impasse through peaceful means appears to have been a one-shot gesture, say activists who point to a spate of recent protests over illegal land grabs that ended in violence. “His words sound sweet to the ears, but they are hollow,” Guo Feixiong, 46, a human rights advocate who recently emerged from a five-year prison term, said of Mr. Wang. [Ibid]

Political analysts suggest that Mr. Wang simply adapted to the more liberal ethos of Guangdong, which is heavily influenced by Hong Kong, the former British colony that enjoys a measure of self-rule. Long a magnet for millions of rural migrants drawn to the region’s factories, Guangdong, with its 100 million people, is a weather vane for the social and economic pressures bearing down on China. [Ibid]

For the moment, members of China’s urban intelligentsia and the disenfranchised farmers who see him as their champion have been left to fret and speculate. Many, like Liu Zhengqing, 48, a rights lawyer in Guangdong, are fully aware that Mr. Wang may simply be a political pragmatist dressed as a liberal. “I admit that Wang Yang isn’t a great reformer,” Mr. Liu said, “but considering the other leaders out there, he is the best hope we have.”

Lack of Reforms in Guangdong Under Wang Yang’s Watch

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: “It is apparent, however, that Wang has in his four-and-half-year tenure only accomplished a small part of his agenda. Take for example, popular participation in politics through grassroots elections. When polls were held last summer to pick deputies to town- and township-level people’s congresses—as well as district-level parliaments in the cities’so-called independent candidates in Guangdong were stripped of their eligibility to take part in the elections. This was despite well-understood regulations that any Chinese citizen can run as non-affiliated candidates after he or she has gathered signatures from 50 members of the relevant constituency. Similar instances of the deprivation of the electoral rights of independent candidates—which was implemented in an apparent attempt to foster political stability—took place throughout China . [Source: Willy Lam, Source: China Brief, May 25, 2012]

“The crackdown on independent candidates shows even someone apparently as reform-minded as Wang has had to make concessions to the wei-wen imperative, and this has included taking a more direct hand in managing Guangdong’s aggressive and courageous journalists. One recent indication of this eroding press freedom is that a career commissar, the Deputy Director of the Guangdong Propaganda Department Yang Jian, was named earlier this month the party secretary of the Nanfang Daily Media Group, which controls Southern Weekend and other outspoken Guangdong papers. Yang replaced Yang Xingfeng, who began his journalistic career as a reporter at Nanfang Daily in 1982. Similarly, Chen Zhong, the liberal chief editor of Guangzhou-based Nanfeng Chuang (“ Window of Southerly Wind” ), a respected muck-raking journal, was replaced last year by Zhou Chenghua, a propaganda cadre known for his rigorous censorship. These developments broke with the long-standing Guangdong media tradition of naming former journalists and not commissars to positions of news executives. [Ibid]

Little has Come from Wang Yang’s Call for Reforms

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, “But Mr. Wang’s apparent support for greater political openness has not borne much fruit. Six months into his tenure, he considered making Shenzhen, the commercial hub of more than 10 million that is considered the birthplace of China’s economic reforms, a showcase for political change. The plan envisioned a gradual shift to the direct election of many officials, a strengthening of local legislatures and a study of how the party-controlled judiciary could be made independent. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, December 30 2011]

None of that came to pass. “The plan was really bold and probably too radical,” said Xiao Bin, an economics professor at Sun Yat-sen University. At a meeting in August 2008 in Shenzhen, he said, he warned Mr. Wang and others that “anything so comprehensive coming out of Shenzhen would send shock waves around the country—and ultimately backfire.

Instead, Mr. Wang approved more mundane administrative reforms in a relatively obscure district called Shunde, combining 41 government departments and their parallel party structures into 16. Scholars say the new structure is more efficient, with fewer party functionaries lacking clear duties.

Mr. Wang also allowed Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to publish its budget for the first time in October 2009. While a national law passed the previous year allowed Chinese citizens to request such information, it also gave officials wide latitude to withhold it to protect state secrets or society’s interests. Indeed, on the same day that Guangzhou posted figures for 114 agencies online, Shanghai declared its budget a state secret. So many people tried to view the Guangzhou budget that the Web site’s server crashed. After angry citizens complained that the city had allocated more than $11 million to operate kindergartens for the children of government workers, the city agreed to gradually reduce the subsidy.

Guangdong also made it easier for nongovernmental organizations like charities and environmental groups to register as legal entities. As of next July, organizations no longer will be required to find a “responsible supervisor” —typically a government-run organization with a party committee—to sponsor their registration. Provincial officials say the change that could aid the development of civil society in a province where the number of nongovernmental organizations already is rising more than three times as fast as the national average. If such loosening is unorthodox, it is nothing compared with the risks Mr. Wang could face by taking a more tolerant approach to antigovernment protests.

Wang Yang and Wen Jiabao

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: ‘since Wang assumed his current post in late 2007, he has shared the limelight with Premier Wen Jiabao as one of only a handful of avid proponents of political reform in the CCP’s upper echelons. There is, however, a striking difference between Wen and Wang. The premier is given to voicing grand principles. He likes to repeat famous dictums delivered by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, such as “without reform, there is only the road to perdition” and “political reform must be implemented in lockstep with economic reform?. While Wen has failed to lay down specific road maps for attaining liberalization, Wang has gone in considerably more depth regarding both the theory and practice of reform. [Source: Willy Lam, Source: China Brief, May 25, 2012]

“Wang has put the emphasis on the masses’ participation in the political process. In a much-noted speech earlier Wang told Guangdong cadres that “we must shake off the wrong idea that the people owe their welfare and happiness to some dispensation from the party and government...We must safeguard the initiative and creativity of the masses” . [Ibid]

“Moreover, Wang has given a convincing explanation as to why it has become more difficult than ever to resuscitate reform. Wang told Chinese and foreign reporters at the National People’s Congress this spring, “At the early stage of reform, the obstacles [to reform] were mainly due to ideological differences. Now, the major problems faced by reform come from the configuration of interest [groups at the top].” This tallies with the commonly held perception that big clans and power blocs in the party—which control trillions of yuan in assets—are opposed to political reform for fear that their monopoly on wealth may be dented. Wang’s proposal for cracking this problem was bold: “To solve the problem of vested interest groups holding up reform, we must first perform surgery on the party and the government”. [Ibid]

Wang Yang vs. Bo Xilai

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Wang is often mentioned in the same breath as Mr. Bo, who also managed—at least for a while—to navigate the narrow space between party establishment and political maverick. Their jousting took the form of a debate over economic policy, expressed most notably in cryptic talk about cake—as a metaphor for China’s wealth. Mr. Bo argued for cutting up the cake and distributing it more equally; Mr. Wang insisted on first making the cake bigger. With their forceful personal styles and flair for self-promotion, both Mr. Wang and Mr. Bo are controversial figures within a party that expects its leaders to be wooden apparatchiks. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, November 5, 2012]

Chongqing Peoples Hotel
Wang Yang and Bo Xilai appear to offer two divergent visions of the direction that China might go in the future.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in Washington Post, "Bo, the son of the late former vice premier Bo Yibo, belongs to the group known as the “princelings,” the children of senior party officials from the Chinese Communist Party’s founding era, who are seen as having inherited their rank and privileges. Wang, by contrast, came from a more modest background and joined the party when working in a food-processing plant. Wang worked his way up through the Communist Youth League, making him a member of the “tuanpai” faction. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, December 23, 2011]

The two are also believed to have different patrons. Wang is believed to be backed by Chinese President Hu Jintao, himself a former Communist Youth Leaguer, who visited Guangdong three times since Wang became party chief. Bo recently received public backing from Xi Jinping—a fellow princeling—who visited Chongqing for a two-day tour in December 2010, where he heaped praise on Bo for his accomplishments, including the red campaign and the war against the triads. Wang is considered a protege of Wen Jiabao.

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asia Times, The two belong to divergent schools of thought in the party. Wang - Bo's predecessor in Chongqing - is said to be more liberal while Bo has turned to the "new left", a faction that advocates a shift away from the market-oriented policies of the reform and opening-up period. It is well known that a grudge exists between the two and lately they made their differences known. If both Bo and Wang reach the final rung of China's bureaucratic ladder, it could make for an interesting clash. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, July 22, 2011]

At the annual session of the National People's Congress in 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said: "We must not only make the cake of social wealth bigger through economic development, but also seek to better divide the cake through a rational and reasonable distribution system." Since then, a debate has raged over which should be prioritized: making "the cake" bigger or dividing it more fairly - Wang and Bo have taken extreme sides.

On July 3, Bo told a guest from Hong Kong that Chongqing under him had taken a different road of development from other provinces. Chongqing had put better division of "the cake" as a higher priority than making the cake bigger. Citing Deng Xiaoping's saying that, "some people must be allowed to prosper first but the ultimate goal is for common prosperity", Bo said, "Some people in China have indeed become rich first, so we must seek the realization of common prosperity."

A week later, on July 10, at a forum on rural economy held in Chongqing, Bo reiterated that Chongqing would not wait until it became "developed" to study a reasonable distribution of wealth and common prosperity. The next day, at a Guangdong provincial party committee in Guangzhou, Wang publicly expressed the opposite view. "To make the cake bigger we must still concentrate on economic development. In other words, division of the cake is not a priority right now. The priority is to make the cake bigger ... This is not a new idea but it gains new meaning when we stress on it right now." That two politburo members hopeful of promotion into the core of Chinese power would publicly take diametrically opposed views has surprised observers. While some say the difference can be put down to regional motivations, others point to the pair's political upbringing.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in Washington Post, “The rivalry has spilled into other areas. When Bo took over Wang's job as party chief in Chongqing, he immediately launched a crackdown on organized crime and the mafia, or triad gangs, which some analysts took as a slap at his predecessor. Also, although Wang has experimented with allowing a relatively open news media and reforms, Bo has shifted to a “new left” stance, encouraging a “Red Culture” campaign that includes the singing of Communist “red songs” and operas, launching a “Red Twitter” microblogging site to promote Mao-era slogans, and ordering Chongqing’s television stations to broadcast patriotically themed programs. Wang replied by saying people’s everyday problems could not be solved through political campaigns.

Wang Yang vs. Bo Xilai on Economic Policy and Development

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asia Times, Wang's Guangdong is China's richest province with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of 43,720 yuan (US$6,768) in 2010, and a population over 100 million. Bo's Chongqing is a less developed big city in southwestern China with a per capita GDP of 27,366 yuan and a population of 30 million. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times July 22, 2011]

“However, Guangdong's economic success in the past 30 years has relied heavily on foreign invested low-tech and low-cost export-oriented industries, so much so that its Pearl River Delta has been known as the "world's workshop". In recent years, these industries have been hit by rising costs of labor, land and other resources. The global financial crisis dealt another heavy blow. A number of factories run by investors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea went under while others are struggling for survival. As a result, Guangdong's economic growth has been slowing down. For example, its GDP grew 9.5 percent and 12.2 percent in 2009 and 2010, dwarfed by Chongqing's 14.9 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively. “

20111030-Wikicommons Electronics factory Shenzhen.jpg
Guangdong factory

As the top leader of Guangdong, Wang has to demonstrate his capacity to boost the local economy and keep the province's leading role in the national economy. Wang's views also suit the current political mood of the leadership. Hu, in his speech at a grand ceremony to mark the CCP's 90th birthday on July 1, said, "In a time to come, we must still firmly adhere to the [Deng's] strategic idea that 'development is of overriding importance'."

By comparison, Bo can take a more laid-back approach to Chongqing's development. While Chongqing is a municipality, 95 percent of its land area is rural. Its economy is much less developed compared with Guangdong and coastal areas. Hence, the costs of production remain relatively much lower, enabling it to attract investment from overseas and more developed regions in China, including Guangdong.

However, the contrast could be down to different political beliefs. When Bo was appointed Chongqing party chief at the end of 2007 to replace Wang, he quickly launched a "hard strike" campaign to crack down on underground gangs. Senior officials working under Wang were netted for corruption and "collusion" with the gangsters, which was interpreted as a slap on Wang's face.

Wang Yang vs. Bo Xilai and Maoist Ideology

left Wu Zhong wrote in the Asia Times, At the same time as the "hard strike" campaign, Bo started a city-wide "red movement", demanding local people sing "red" (revolutionary) songs and study and recite Marxist and Maoist classics, in an effort to restore some of the beliefs and values of chairman Mao Zedong's era. It is thus logical for him to seek equality and wealth distribution. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times July 22, 2011]

Bo has put his beliefs into practice. The Chongqing government has allocated 300 billion yuan in recent years to subsidize education, medical care and housing in rural areas. It has also set a goal to reduce the local Gini co-efficient, a measurement of the wealth gap, to 0.35 from the current 0.42. Chongqing has a party committee devoted to working out policy principles on narrowing wealth gap.

In contrast, when Wang became Guangdong party chief in late 2007, he called for further "emancipation of thought" and deepening reform and opening-up. "Emancipation of thought" was a slogan initiated by Deng to encourage liberal ideas to pave the way for his reform and opening-up policy. Recently in an online chat with netizens, Wang said "We [communist officials] should allow ordinary people to swear at us if we are not doing a good job."

In today's China where the wealth gap is large and expanding, it is not hard to see that Bo's views are more welcomed by the public. Angry netizens say now the "cake" in China is already quite big, and the problem is that only a small minority "who prospered first" can take a bite. But political battles in China are silently conducted within the CCP. No outsiders can presume whose views will fall out of favor before next year's 18th congress.

Bo Xilai-Wang Yang Love Fest?

Keith B. Richburg wrote in Washington Post, “The unusual public rivalry was apparently so intense that Wang and Bo met in Beijing on Dec. 11 for an unusual display of unity and to sign a “cooperation agreement” between their two provinces. Some analysts speculated that the open show of friendliness may have been orchestrated by senior level Beijing leaders to end the sniping ahead of the 2012 leadership changes. “This was really getting ugly,” said Cheng Li, an analyst of the Chinese leadership with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Their policy differences and ideological differences had come into the public domain. The Communist Party was really on the verge of a split between the so-called Chongqing model and the so-called Guangdong model.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, December 23, 2011]

Russell Leigh Moses wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “At the same time that a central leadership meeting on holding the economy together was getting underway in Beijing, a far stranger get-together took place on the sidelines. Representatives of the municipality of Chongqing and Guangdong province met earlier this week and signed a deal to widen and deepen regional cooperation. The agreement came on the second year anniversary of a previous accord; like the first, the pact focuses on economic exchanges, market opening, investment, and other industrial undertakings. [Source: Russell Leigh Moses, Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2011]

None of that is especially noteworthy, given that one major focus of the Hu leadership has been to recentralize economic decision-making at the top, in part by breaking down the barriers on inter-provincial trade and compelling regional officials to answer to Beijing.What’s stunning about the meeting, however, was the mutual admiration that appears to have broken out suddenly between political rivals Bo Xilai and Wang Yang, the Communist Party chiefs of Chongqing and Guangdong respectively.

In his public remarks published in Chongqing Daily and reprinted in the central media , Bo was lavish in his praise of Wang, his predecessor in Chongqing, saying that “today, we sit together with Comrade Wang Yang [who] during his time in Chongqing led us all to lay the foundations, worked for long-term plans and significant events, and gave important meaning to the present conditions of the people of Chongqing.” Bo went on to say that when he spoke to Wang, he was “brimming over with true feelings”, noting that “the old saying of the first step is the most difficult” applied to Wang’s contribution to Chongqing’s present development.

All of this from the same Bo Xilai who has not been at all shy about making a clean sweep of Wang’s legacy, especially as Wang is considered by many officials there to have skipped town abruptly, leaving behind a city they saw as half-completed and in social disarray. For his part, Wang Yang said that even after he departed Chongqing, he “remained concerned” with its well-being, even so far as to plant a native tree from Chongqing downstairs from his office to watch its development. Passing it every day after he left work, Wang said, he was reminded of his time there. While his praise of Bo personally was spare and not nearly as effusive as the remarks made by his successor, Wang noted that he was “emotionally gratified and proud” of the progress made in Chongqing since his exit, implying that Bo was not the disruptor he had made out to be, but a fine economic partner.

What’s going on? For all the good fellowship displayed at the meeting, these two remain competitors. After all, Bo has made his national name recently by remaking Chongqing and being different from Wang where politics is concerned. Bo’s methods—the Chongqing political model— emphasize the red glare of populism and nostalgia amid the gleam of urban reconstruction. Wang, on the other hand, has been promoting the notion of a wider responsibility for government in Guangdong; that Party officials should be judged not on the renovations they produce, but the social happiness they provide for a public pressed by the stresses and strains of modern city life. While Bo may be pining for a return to politics practiced by the masses, Wang wants to reorient politics towards the masses, away from a focus on elites and infrastructure exclusively. The problem for both Bo and Wang is that the central leadership does not need any more rivalries; it’s riven quite enough by debates about how to handle the economic slowdown and what should be done about those sections of society here that are growing increasingly disgruntled...Unfortunately for Bo and Wang, the space for fighting has naorrwed. The hardline center in the Party still holds the advantage. Bo and Wang have been brought to heel. Their inclusion the economic summit here depended on their willingness to come to some common ground and to do so publicly.

It would be nice to think that Bo and Wang have made amends, that some middle ground in the political landscape has finally been reached. But Bo and Wang did not jump; they were pushed. And while the joint announcement said that the accord was “a win-win,” the ultimate victor in the meeting was neither Chongqing nor Guangdong. It was Beijing that prevailed, showing that sometimes the center can hold.

Wang Yang and the Wukan Model

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: “Wang’s most notable contribution to liberalizing the political system is his unorthodox handling of the Wukan Village crisis of late 2011, when close to 20,000 peasants in Wukan, which is located in southern Guangdong, threw out their local CCP cadres and set up their own administration. The allegedly corrupt officials were accused of illegally selling the villagers’ land to a Hong Kong developer without giving the farmers adequate compensation. At first, the authorities surrounded the village with thousands of police and People’s Armed Police. Wang, however, decided to recognize the villagers— rights and not to penalize the “rebel leaders.” New elections were held in January this year and Lin Zulian, the brains behind the “peasant insurrection,” was chosen as the new head of Wukan. The initial land sale was nullified and several responsible officials were detained on corruption charges. [Source: Willy Lam, Source: China Brief, May 25, 2012]

“Wang, who obviously wants to claim credit for having come up with a more humane approach to the CCP’s foremost task of wei-wen (preserving stability), has indicated that the “Wukan Model” will be applied to the rest of the province. “The Wukan [Model] was not only meant to solve problems in the village, but also to set a reference standard to reform village governance across Guangdong,” he told the Chinese media. Wang added “People’s democratic awareness is increasing significantly in this changing society,” and “When their appeals for rights aren't getting enough attention, that’s when mass incidents happen”. Not all problems in Wukan have been solved. For example, only a small portion of the illegally expropriated land has been returned to the peasants. A number of liberal scholars, however, have pushed for the nationwide application of the “Wukan Model.” “The Wukan experience has pushed forward the democratization of farmers’ participation in village administration,” said Beijing University social scientist Li Chengyan, “This successful example of democratic self-rule at the grassroots level should be duplicated elsewhere in China”. [Ibid]

Wukan Protest

In the fall of 2011 a series of protests in Wukan, a coastal town of 20,000, about 150 kilometers east of Hong Kong in booming industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, gained worldwide attention. The New York Times reported: “The unrest began in September, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the seizure of agricultural land they said was illegally taken by government officials. The land was sold to developers, they said, but the farmers ended up with little or no compensation. After two days of protests, during which police vehicles were destroyed and government buildings ransacked, riot police moved in with what residents described as excessive brutality. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 14, 2011]

With order restored, local officials vowed to investigate the villager’s land-grab claims. Two village party officials were fired and the authorities made an offer that is rare in China’s top-down political system: county party officials would negotiate with a group of village representatives chosen by popular consensus. A butcher named Xue Jinbo was among the 13 people chosen.

It is unclear what happened next, but villagers say the goodwill evaporated in November and December after a Lufeng County government spokesman condemned the earlier protests as illegal and accused Wukan’s ad hoc leaders of abetting “overseas forces that want to sow divisions between the government and villagers.” A few days later, residents took to the streets again and staged a sit-in. Authorities responded by sending in a group of plain-clothes policemen who grabbed five of the representatives, including a local butcher. Two days later, he was dead. According to a 24-year-old villager who described himself as the butcher’s son-in-law, his knees were bruised, his nostrils were caked with blood and his thumbs appeared to be broken. The protests peaked after the butcher’s death and ended after negotiations between villagers and province officials.

An NPR report described the Wukan struggle as a conflict that “began as a property dispute” and “escalated into an open revolt” and became “one of the most serious episodes of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in recent years.” The Wukan events are important because they underscore just how much anger there is in China over efforts by unscrupulous developers and corrupt officials to take advantage of rural landholders.

See Wukan Protest Under Government, Protests

Wang Yang and the Wukan Protests

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Chinese analysts and others are watching to see whether the unrest could have a wider effect, perhaps on the future of a provincial chief who had been seen as a rising star in the Communist Party. Wang Yang, the provincial party leader since 2007, has been seen as one of the country’s leading economic reformers, presiding over one of China’s most affluent, vibrant provinces that was the first to benefit from the liberalization policies begun in 1979. Wang is considered a top candidate for one of the seven slots opening in 2012 on the all-powerful ninemember Politburo Standing Committee. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, December 23, 2011]

Wang made significant concessions to end the uprising in Wukan, including an agreement that freezes the disputed land deals, releases jailed villagers from custody and reportedly sacks some local officials. The uprising in Wukan, along with recent labor strikes and a protest in a coastal town called Haimen, is seen by some as a challenge to the Guangdong model at a time when Bo Xilai, the party chief in Chongqing and a rival to Wang, has been critical of the “liberal approach.”

For months, Wang and Bo have been engaged in a rare public debate over whose methods and models are best for China. With its atmosphere of relative openness, including the country’s first publicly available provincial budget, Guangdong has been hailed by some as a template for others. For his part, Bo has championed an approach that emphasizes efforts to reverse income inequality. ‘some people in China have indeed become rich first, so we must seek the realization of common prosperity,” Bo was quoted as saying in July. A week later, Wang said in Guangdong that “division of the cake is not a priority right now. The priority is to make the cake bigger.”

Analysts and others said the current unrest in Guangdong, if handled properly, might give a boost to Wang and other reformist members of the party’s ruling clique ahead of the leadership changes. But if the unrest worsens or spreads, the reformers could find themselves challenged. “Insofar as you think Wang Yang is a reformer, these people have a shrinking base from which to start,” said Dean Cheng, a China analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If Wang disappears from the scene or is rebutted, this allows [Bo] to step into the resulting space.”

Hu Deping, eldest son of the late reformist general secretary Hu Yaobang, said the problem of farmers’ land rights in this rapidly urbanizing country was “one of the most important issues” facing China now, and he said the problem was more pronounced in Guangdong, which began the reform process earliest. “If the Wukan incident is solved well, it will definitely have a positive impact on the overall reforms,” said Hu, a senior party official who recently wrote a book about his father’s reform efforts in the 1980s.

Wang Yang Tests a New Political Approach in Wukan

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Given a choice of storming the village with armed police officers or conceding that the villagers’ complaints had merit, Mr. Wang chose the latter. And in a single morning, he defused a standoff that had drawn unflattering worldwide news coverage. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, December 30 2011]

The decision won him praise in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, which called it an act of “political courage” in a tense situation. Some analysts said it might have strengthened his already strong prospects to land a seat on China’s elite ruling body, the nine-member Standing Committee of the party’s Politburo, when a wave of mandatory retirements vacates seven of the seats this coming year.

And it raised the hopes of those here who want someone liberal—as defined by China’s restrictive definitions—to push for political and social reforms at the highest level of China’s leadership. “He seems to favor reform,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian formerly with the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “At least Mr. Wang realizes that maintaining stability with force and violence is both economically and politically unsustainable, and came up with an alternative that seems to work better.”

But as is amply shown by the travails of China’s best-known quasi liberal, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, having a soft heart for the dispossessed gets a politician only so far in a party where stability is the trump card. “How high can a man jump?” asked Yan Lieshan, a senior editor of Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper known for hard-hitting reporting. “If officials overstep the limits set by the central government, their positions will become untenable.”

And in fact, while Mr. Wang has sometimes talked boldly about how power should not be concentrated in a “minority of elites,” many liberal-minded analysts characterize his own initiatives in Guangdong as modest, at best. “Wang Yang’s problem is when you try to make reform happen inside the system, if you go too fast you hurt the interests of others, and they will gang up on you to eliminate you,” Mr. Zhang said.

Wang’s peaceful settlement of Wukan’s uprising earns praise in Beijing now. But that could turn into accusations of soft-heartedness and strategic miscalculation should his conciliatory approach lead to more and bolder protests. Even some of Guangdong’s local party cadres do not seem fully onboard. Consider the Dec. 19 outburst from Zheng Yanxiong, the party secretary of the city whose territory includes Wukan, two days before Mr. Wang’s emissary settled the Wukan villagers’ grievances.

“There’s only one group of people who really experience added hardships year after year. Who are they? Cadres, that’s who. Me included,” Mr. Zheng railed during a session with Chinese reporters. “Your powers decline every day, and you have fewer and fewer methods at your disposal—but your responsibility grows bigger and bigger every day.” “Ordinary people want more and more every day,” he continued. “They grow smarter every day, and they are harder and harder to control. “Today’s government officials are having a hard time.”

Wang Yang After the 2012 Party Congress

At the November 2012 Party Congress Wang was not selected as a member of Politburo Standing Committee. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Wang Yang, who has cultivated a following by denouncing “entrenched interests” and promoting individual happiness over party perquisites, remains the reformist camp’s best candidate for counterbalancing the slate of colorless technocrats and conservatives who dominate the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee that runs China.”Wang Yang has become the main receptacle for the expectations and hopes of China’s reformers,” said Xiao Bin, a public affairs professor at Sun Yat-sen University here in Guangzhou, the provincial capital. Even if he is something of a political chameleon, Mr. Wang has become a torchbearer for advocates of free-market economics and quasi-enlightened governance, much the way his former rival Bo Xilai, the fallen party chief of Chongqing in southwest China, had been championed by the neo-leftists who crave a return of Mao-style populism. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, November 5, 2012]

“Even though he didn’t make in 2012 to the Standing Committee party insiders say that Mr. Wang, 57, will play an important role in the next government and that he is an odds-on favorite to ascend to the Standing Committee during the next round of retirements in 2017. The fact that did not make it onto the Standing Committee, some analysts say, was an indication of the waning influence of departing President Hu Jintao as well as Mr. Wen, who has been one of his most vocal supporters. Mr. Wang’s rise may well have been hamstrung as well by his relative youth. If elevated in 2012, he could serve an unprecedented three five-year terms on the Standing Committee, which, apparently in the minds of some party elders, would allow him to amass too much power. [Ibid]

Wang Yang: The Future Torchbearer of Reform?

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: “Of the candidates for new members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) Wang Yang is the only one who the past few years has consistently spoken out in favor of reform—including some degree of political liberalization. The question on the minds of China observers is whether Wang can pick up the threads of political reform in his capacity as the leader of the much-attenuated group of liberals within the CCP and among the nation’s intelligentsia. [Source: Willy Lam, Source: China Brief, May 25, 2012]

“A keen concern of those interested in the future of reform not only in Guangdong but nationwide is the extent to which Wang can persevere with his taboo-smashing crusade after his expected promotion to the PBSC at the 18th Party Congress. “Much hinges on the portfolio that Wang will secure after his entry to the PBSC,” said Beijing-based social scientist Liu Junning, who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a political scientist. Liu said “If Wang is in charge of areas not having to do with ideology or party affairs, he may lack the clout to do much about political reform? After all, such has been the case of Premier Wen—who has authority over the economy, but not much else. “Grandpa Wen” has often been criticized for merely talking about liberalization—but without any follow-up action. Moreover, moves on weighty issues’such as the direction of economic or political reform—require a consensual decision by the entire PBSC. Yet the great majority of the likely new PBSC members, including “crown prince” Xi Jinping, are known as defenders of the status quo rather than risk-takers. If, as is likely, the post-18th Party Congress PBSC will continue to take wei-wen as the party’s overriding task, the chances of the nationwide application of the reforms that Wang has so painstaking eked out in Guangdong may be relatively slim. [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2012

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