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, Xue Jinbo. 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, with villagers smashing a police station and cars. After key village activists were detained in December, villagers drove out officials and barricaded themselves in for 10 days, keeping police out and holding boisterous rallies. The 11-day confrontation was defused in late December after senior Communist Party officials from the provincial capital reached an agreement with Wukan’s self-appointed leaders, promising free elections and an investigation into the questionable real estate deals that locals claim have robbed Wukan of much of its arable land. The officials also agreed to fully investigate the death of Xue Jinbo, and to release his body for burial.

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. The New York Times reported: There are tens of thousands of protests in China each year — many of them over land as in Wukan, and often provoked by the actions of indifferent or corrupt local officials. Similar standoffs in China often end in arrests, but in Wukan the provincial government conceded. It offered to hold the new elections, return some of the disputed farmland and release the detained activists, as well as the body of one who died in detention. In another unexpected victory for the town’s 13,000 residents, the local Communist Party last month selected one of the protest leaders to be Wukan’s party secretary.

Beginning of the Wukan Protest in September 2011

The clashes in Wukan were exceptional for their longevity — and for the brazenness of the participants. The initial riot broke out on 21 September in the village of Wukan, where government buildings including a police station were attacked. Villagers claim that corrupt officials and powerful developers have illegally acquired hundreds of hectares of land in recent years.

According to interviews with villagers, officials had been selling off communal land in Wukan since the early 1990s, with few locals seeing any of the proceeds. Resentment finally boiled over when the last large plot of land in the village was sold — at a time when rising inflation meant many villagers wanted the land to grow their own crops.

Residents of Wukan had watched luxury villas crop up on what had been their land. Villagers demand the return of illegally seized land and ransacked municipal offices and a restaurant and ranch belonging to a wealthy Hong Kong real estate developer. As a result, authorities agreed to an investigation of all land deals in the southern village going back to 1978.

Jeremy Page and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Some villagers have said that local officials sold the land to a property developer for as much as one billion yuan and then pocketed about 70 percent of that. Local authorities responded at first by sending in riot police, but later tried to negotiate with villagers, asking them to appoint 13 representatives to deal with the government. Those negotiations failed to achieve a compromise. [Source: Jeremy Page and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2011]

Background Behind the Wukan Protest

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “The state press has been all but mute on why 13,000 Chinese citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake Wukan. But the village takeover can be ignored only at Beijing’s peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 26, 2011]

“What happened in Wukan is nothing new. It’s all across the country,” said Liu Yawei , an expert on local administration who is the director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. A second analyst, Li Fan, estimated, in an interview, that 50 percent to 60 percent of Chinese villages suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that apparently beset Wukan, albeit not so severe. Mr. Li leads the World and China Institute , a private nonprofit research center based in Beijing that has extensively studied local election and governance issues.

On paper, the Wukan protests never should have happened: China’s village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves. Moreover, the government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent. Actually running the villages, however, is another matter. Village committees must provide many of the services offered by governments, such as sanitation and social welfare, but they cannot tax their residents or collect many fees. Any efforts to raise additional money, for things like economic development, usually need approval from the Communist Party-controlled township or county seats above them.In practice, the combination of the villages’ need for cash and their dependence on higher-ups has bred back-scratching and corruption between village officials and their overseers. China’s boom in land prices has only broadened the opportunity for siphoning off money from village accounts.

And the checks and balances — a village legislature to sign off on major decisions, a citizens’ accounting committee to watch over the village books — have turned out to be easily manipulated by those who really hold the power. “Land sales are where the big money is,” Edward Friedman, a political science professor and a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a telephone interview. “Every level can see how much better the level above it is doing. And each one wants to live at least that well. The system has within it a dynamic which makes people feel it’s only fair that they get their share of the wealth.”

The opportunities to get that share are vast, apparently. In 2003, a candidate for village committee chairman in Laojiaotou village, in Shanxi Province, spent two million renminbi — then about $245,000 — to campaign for an office that paid 347 renminbi a month, the Chinese journal Legal News reported at the time.

Shady Land Sales by the Local Government in Wukan

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Leaders of the Wukan protest said it was common knowledge that local government and Communist Party officials had spent millions of renminbi to buy potentially lucrative posts. They maintained that Wukan’s village committee stayed in power in part by threatening any challenges to its continued rule. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 26, 2011]

None of those allegations could be quickly confirmed. One verified statistic, however, is compelling. Of the nine members of Wukan’s village committee, five had held their posts since the committee system itself was set up under Mao Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. The same was true of the village’s Communist Party secretary, Xue Chang, who had held office since 1970 before being replaced after the initial wave of protests in September.

Though a village in legal terms, Wukan is bigger than most such entities. It sits in urban Guangdong Province, abutting a natural harbor on the Pacific Ocean that is ideal for development. Many details of the practices that incited Wukan’s protests are murky.

Leaders of the protest contend, however, that the village committee sold off or granted long-term leases to nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles over an 18-year period beginning in 1993. The sales were said to include roughly four-fifths of the village’s 1.5 square miles of farmland and much of its forests. Just how the land was sold remains unclear. Under Chinese law, such sales are supposed to require approval of the villagers, who collectively own the land and are supposed to share in the proceeds. But the approval process is vague; in practice, most decisions are left to the elected village committee or an appointed village legislature that acts on behalf of the residents.

Villagers say they have no idea where the proceeds from any of the sales or rentals went. “From 1993 onward, not one time were we told,” said Lin Zuluan, a protest leader. “No voting, no compensation, nothing. We didn’t even know what was going on.”

Mr. Lin said that most residents, unfamiliar with the workings of a village system, had no idea of their rights. That seems plausible; one recent academic study concluded that three in four residents of villages that had been surveyed had no information about village finances.

In Wukan, villagers did sense that something was wrong, and had complained vigorously — between July 2009 and last March, seven times to Guangdong Province officials and five times to officials of Lufeng, the county seat. But none of those complaints appear to have been addressed.

Last Straw That Ignited the Wukan Protests

Land sales in Wukan also required approval by Donghai township, the level of government just above Wukan, Wines wrote. In some cases, officials in Lufeng, the county seat whose territory includes Wukan, were also involved in setting up sales. The land went to hotels, homes, factories, power companies and even private funerary temples. One wealthy villager, Chen Wenqing, gained a business interest in Wukan’s harbor and a 50-year lease on a large tract of land used as a pig farm.

A plan this year to sell Mr. Chen’s farm and an equal amount of villagers’ farmland to developers of a luxury housing and retail project was the final straw, though, mobilizing villagers to protest, Wines wrote. Beyond seeking a public accounting of that project and others like it, angry residents called for democratic elections to replace village officials, many of whom have been in power for decades. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 26, 2011]

China News said the property development involved a real estate company with the same name as Hong Kong-listed Country Garden Holdings Co. Frederick Chan, a spokesman with the company, said that the company “does not have any land in the village.”

"We have a huge gap between rich and poor in our village. We want to see what role land sales play in that," said Zhang Chenhao, 22, who calls himself one of a group of "patriotic youths" in Wukan.

Wukan Protests Heat Up Again in November 2011

After the de facto revolt by Wukan’s residents Guangdong Province officials stepped into the crisis, calling the villagers’ grievances legitimate and promising to address them. Wukan’s village committee chief and its party secretary are under investigation, a move that probably will end in stiff punishment. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 26, 2011]

In November, Reuters reported, thousands of villagers angry that officials failed to address their grievances after riots two months earlier marched to a government office in southern China to demand the return of land they say was illegally seized.The protest came after a series of strikes in factories in Guangdong province, China's economic powerhouse. [ Source: Reuters, The Guardian, November 22, 2011]

One witness identifying himself by his surname Yang said by phone that 4,000 villagers and farmers from Wukan surrounded government offices in Lufeng City. The protesters denounced local officials as greedy and corrupt. They dispersed after an hour without incident.

A villager surnamed Zhang, who sent photographs of the protest to Reuters, said authorities had failed to tackle collusion between developers and local officials. No progress had been made in renegotiating inequitable land deals back to 1998. "They have done nothing for us. They lied," Zhang said by phone from Wukan. Residents of Lufeng ransacked government offices two months earlier over the same issue.

At the same time as this there were reports of industrial disputes over pay and benefits in export hubs such as Guangdong. Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily said at least 500 female workers at a bra factory in Shenzhen had protested in the past few days about overtime pay. Thousands of workers at a factory in Dongguan city, Guangdong, manufacturing shoes for brands including New Balance, Nike and Adidas went on strike last week over wage cuts and redundancies, Ming Pao Daily reported. Workers at PepsiCo bottling plants in China protested earlier this month at a deal in which beverage and noodle maker Tingyi will buy the loss-making bottling business. The head of PepsiCo's China operations pledged to protest workers' rights following the stoppages.

Wukan Conflict Intensifies After Wukan Resident Dies in Police Custody

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “A long-running dispute between farmers and local officials in Wukan exploded into open rebellion after villagers chased away government leaders, set up roadblocks and began arming themselves with homemade weapons, residents said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, Edward Wong, New York Times, December 14, 22, 2011]

The conflict in Wukan escalated after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Communist Party had died in police custody. The authorities say a heart attack killed the 42-year-old man, but relatives say his body bore signs of torture. In an online announcement, the municipal government of Shanwei said that the suspect, Xue Jinbo, "suddenly felt unwell." The authorities said he was rushed to hospital but died from cardiac failure.

Mr. Xue died after being abducted on Dec. 9 with four other men, apparently at the behest of Lufeng police officials. The Lufeng police said that Mr. Xue and the four others were arrested and charged with protest-related crimes. Mr. Xue’s relatives, who were allowed to see but not photograph his body, say it bore signs of torture, including caked blood, bruises and a broken left thumb. They believe Xue was beaten to death. "We lament his death, as he died for us," one villager told the Wal Street Journal. He said that Mr. Xue's mother, wife and elder brother had been to see his corpse and had found three fractures, as well as several scars.

Although government censors blocked news of the unrest, the state-run Xinhua news agency weighed in on the “rumors” about Mr. Xue’s death, saying he had died of cardiac arrest a day after confessing to his role in the riots of in September. The account cited public security officials who said Mr. Xue had a history of asthma and heart disease and it referred to a report by forensic investigators who found no evidence of abuse. “We assume the handcuffs left the marks on his wrists, and his knees were bruised slightly when he knelt,” Luo Bin, deputy chief of the Zhongshan University forensics medical center told Xinhua. A fellow inmate reported that Mr. Xue was ill Sunday, Xinhua quoted the police as saying, and he was immediately taken to a nearby hospital, where he died after 30 minutes of emergency treatment.

Xinhua said Mr. Xue was suspected of having led protests in Wukan in September "regarding issues related to land use, financing and the election of local officials." It said he and other villagers had broken into local government offices and police stations and destroyed six police cars. Xinhua said Xue, who was “suspected” of leading more than 400 villagers to “vent their anger” over a land dispute, and two others were arrested on Dec. 9 on suspicion of damaging public property and disrupting public services. He pleaded guilty to the accusations during two interrogations, Xinhua said, citing Zeng Songquan, Shanwei’s deputy chief of the public security bureau. “Several thousand” people held a memorial for Xue at a temple in the village center the Wall Street Journal said. Xue’s remains are still held by local officials, the newspaper said.

The top party official in Shanwei, Zheng Yanxiong, said Mr. Xue’s death would nonetheless be investigated, but he warned residents against using their suspicions to fuel unrest.”The government will strive to settle all related problems and hopes the village will not be instigated into staging further riots,” Mr. Zheng said.

Protests After Wukan Riot Suspect Dies in Custody

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Reached by phone residents said throngs of people were staging noisy rallies by day outside Wukan’s village hall, while young men with walkie-talkies employed tree limbs to obstruct roads leading to the town. Not far away, heavily armed riot police were maintaining their own roadblocks. The siege has prevented deliveries from reaching the town of 20,000, but residents said they had no problem receiving food from adjoining villages.”

A thousand armed police attempted to enter the village on Dec. 11 and were blocked, the Daily Telegraph reported, citing a local resident. Tear gas and water cannons failed to disperse the crowd and after two hours the police withdrew and barricaded roads to the village, the newspaper said. Wukan is currently being supplied by residents of neighboring areas carrying in food across fields, the Telegraph reported.

Jeremy Page and Brian Spegele, Wukan “villagers have forced local officials and police to fleeand have erected barricades to prevent them from re-entering, according to residents. The police have responded by imposing a blockade on Wukan, stopping food and water from entering, and preventing local fishing boats from heading out to sea, the residents said. [Source: Jeremy Page and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2011]

Outside Wukan, life appeared normal with shops and markets open. Police erected a roadblock three or four miles from Wukan and checked cars traveling in both directions. They prevented a Wall Street Journal reporter from entering.A press officer for the local government denied that any land grab had occurred, although he did acknowledge that villagers were angry over a land issue. He said the local government understood local concerns, and the situation would be resolved either this week or next. "It will absolutely have a smooth resolution," the official said.

Bloomberg reported: Police armed with shotguns restricted movement in and out of the village of Wukan...A dozen uniformed officers and three vehicles manned a checkpoint yesterday about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the village, checking identification cards and preventing some people from entering. [Source: Bloomberg News, December 16, 2011]

The standoff between the village and outside authorities began when protesters furious over word of Mr. Xue’s death mobbed the headquarters of Wukan’s village committee. The last of the committee’s nine members fled after thousands of protesters beat back an effort by the local police to retake the village.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “The villagers — once numbering 13,000, but now down to about 6,000, one protester said — have set up their own governing body and issued demands that their land be returned and that a new village committee be democratically elected. Outside authorities responded by detaining two Wukan officials — the village Communist Party secretary, Xue Chang, and the head of the village administrative committee, Chun Shunyi — for interrogation by the party’s disciplinary officials. The action is tantamount to arrest.”

Wu Zili, the acting mayor of Shanwei, which has jurisdiction over Wukan, said the government is “determined to crackdown” on “criminal ringleaders” who incited the protests and destroyed property, the China News Service reported. At the same time, he said the land development will be halted and local authorities questioned about the incident.

Wukan Demonstrators Halt Protest

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Villagers who had carried out a prominent protest against what they called land seizures by officials and business people agreed on Wednesday to halt their demonstrations after more than 10 days of keeping Communist Party authorities out of their village. The protests ended after a leader of the villagers met with senior officials from coastal Guangdong Province in southern China. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 21, 2011] The provincial officials agreed to the meeting after residents here threatened to march to government offices in the nearby city of Lufeng. In the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour outside Wukan, two senior provincial officials spoke to Lin Zuluan, 65, one of the villagers’ main representatives. Mr. Lin said after the meeting that the officials had agreed to three conditions set by the protesters, including freeing several villagers who had been detained, though the issue of the land sales remained unresolved.

“I was satisfied with how the meeting went,” Mr. Lin said. “Now they’ve opened up a new channel of communication, and it will help to build a closer relationship between the two sides.” After the meeting with official Mr. Lin and other village leaders met to discuss their options and decided to call off the public protests and to reopen access to the village. It was unclear whether party officials who fled earlier would return and resume their jobs.

After that conclave, the village leaders held a rally with more than 1,000 residents in a public square and told the audience about the new agreement. When the villagers then dispersed, they took down protest banners hanging up near the square.

Meeting that Led to the End of the Wukan Protests

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The meeting was the first with province-level officials, and it contrasted sharply with the denunciations and threats of arrest that have defined the official response to the protests since the standoff began. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 21, 2011]

The negotiations were led by the deputy chief of the provincial Communist Party committee, Zhu Mingguo, and the party secretary of the administrative region of Shanwei, Zheng Yanxiong. Mr. Zhu is a top lieutenant to the provincial party secretary, Wang Yang, one of China’s most prominent political leaders and an unspoken candidate for a spot on China’s ruling body, the standing committee of the Politburo, when membership in the body, which now has nine seats, turns over next year.

The abrupt shift of negotiations to provincial leaders, after days of fruitless talks with officials of local governments, suggested that Mr. Wang was taking charge and hoping to broker a peaceful settlement of a crisis whose outcome could weigh heavily on his political future.In midmorning, as officials began arriving outside the village, hundreds of residents lined the roadside. Dozens held up a red banner that welcomed the officials “to come to Lufeng to resolve the Wukan incident.”

Inside Wukan, in a council meeting hall, bags of rice were piled high in a corner to dole out to poorer families. Since party officials abandoned the area days ago, security forces have turned back many food trucks outside the village. Some residents say the authorities intended to starve the villagers until they submitted, yet they profess their devotion to the Communist Party and speak of how the central government will soon come to their aid.

On the main road connecting Lufeng to Wukan, there was no sign of a police presence on Tuesday night. A police checkpoint that had been erected at one bridge outside Lufeng several days ago was no longer there. But on the outskirts of Wukan, villagers still manned barricades that are meant to keep back security forces. When foreign journalists traveling from Lufeng approached them near midnight, several villagers took the journalists into the heart of Wukan on the backs of motorcycles.

Mr. Lin said the greatest concern of the villagers was their land: they charge that the village government and Lufeng authorities illegally sold the village’s collectively owned farm and forest land to developers without their consent, and that money from the sales is unaccounted for. Mr. Lin said the issue would need to be discussed in further talks with officials. Mr. Lin said the officials agreed to release the detainees that day or the next day and to turn over Mr. Xue’s body. The officials also promised an investigation into the death, he said.

Official statements also say that roughly 67 acres of village land, a tiny fraction of the amount sold, has been recovered. The reports do not indicate what was done with the property. Even before the residents chased their village committee leaders from town on Dec. 11, the village committee’s accounting ledger had been taken away, ostensibly for an audit.

Protests in Haimen and Other Villages Near Wukan

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “News of the Wukan protest has been all but banned from the Chinese media and Internet sites. But there were indications that word of the dispute was nevertheless spreading. Posts on Chinese microblog services reported protests in three other villages in Shanwei Prefecture, which includes Wukan, apparently over other land disputes. Three people were arrested in Guangzhou, a Guangdong Province metropolis, after a protest in sympathy with the Wukan villagers. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 21, 2011]

One microblog post, with photographs, described a violent clash between police officers and thousands of people in Haimen, a township in Shantou, a major Pacific coast city about 90 miles from Wukan. The Internet posts stated that the Shantou demonstrators, some of whom were hospitalized, were protesting plans to build a power plant, fearing that it would add to pollution and damage the local fishing industry. Other microblog reports told of related protests in two nearby villages.

The Guardian reported: “Chinese riot police have fired teargas to break up a protest against a planned power station, while a state TV station showed confessions by two detained activists in an attempt to get other protesters off the streets. Footage from Hong Kong's Cable TV showed police firing several rounds of teargas in Haimen town in the southern province of Guangdong, forcing hundreds of people to flee covering their mouths and noses with their hands. [Source: The Guardian, December 23, 2011]

Hours later, a local TV station carried interviews with two detained protesters, a man named Li and a woman, Yung. Sitting behind bars with their heads bowed and handcuffs in full view, the two took turns to confess. "It was wrong to surround the government and block the highway," Li said, with his eyes lowered. "I do not know the law. If I knew, I will not block the expressway. If I could have understood this, I wouldn't have been so brash," Yung said, her voice shaking.

In an obvious attempt to end the demonstrations now running into their fourth day, the Shantou TV station also lined up several Chinese legal experts and quoted them as saying that such actions carried a maximum penalty of five years in jail, and urging protesters to surrender.

The protests in Haimen, a coastal town of about 120,000 people under the jurisdiction of Shantou city, intensified this week as people in Wukan village, about 80 miles further along the coast, called off a 10-day blockade of their village in protest against what they said was a land grab by officials. Residents of Haimen took to the streets to protest against plans to build a coal-fired power plant after what they complain has been years of air and water pollution from existing power plants in the town.

"Villagers complained that the current power plant had led to a rise in the number of cancer patients, the deterioration of the environment, and a drop in fishing hauls," state Xinhua news agency reported on Friday. "The Shantou city government announced Tuesday evening, shortly after the protest, that the project would be suspended. Some village residents said that they knew nothing about the announcement, while others said they had no trust in the suspension decision."

Hong Kong newspapers reported earlier that the villagers wanted the project to be scrapped altogether and have pledged to keep up their action if police did not release detained protesters. China's state news agency, Xinhua, had reported that police had detained five people for vandalism on Wednesday evening.

Handling of the Wukan Protests

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “The state-run press has hailed the Guangdong response as a model of government responsiveness and a template for handling public grievances in the future. Yet some observers of Chinese governance are less sanguine. In their view, Wukan’s uprising highlighted systemic defects in China’s local governments, and only a housecleaning — not an isolated slap on the wrist — will address them. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 26, 2011]

The trouble, they say, is that almost nobody benefits from a housecleaning — not village leaders or township and county officials enriched by land sales and other corrupt deals. And not higher officials whose influence is only diminished if they get rid of lower-level supplicants.

“What will change things is if you change the incentives by which make you make your money,” said Mr. Friedman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Allowing peasants to own and sell their land — and not a village committee — would suggest a serious effort to break the corruption cycle, he said. So would breaking up the cozy network of village and local government officials who stand to benefit from land sales.

For the moment, at least, those sorts of reforms do not appear to be in the cards. “The vested interests in the present system are very strong,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s a Deng in the office who has enough clout to change things.” On the impact of the foreign media on the Wukan protests Beijing-based Israeli journalist Rachel Beitare told China Beat: Inviting the media in was the villagers’ own decision and helped them get a lot of publicity, but it may land them in even bigger trouble in the end than if they hadn’t. I think we all need some distance from the situation to properly analyze the pros and cons.

In April 2012, AP reported: “Chinese authorities have punished 20 officials and former village leaders after a community in southern China held mass protests over land disputes that drove out local officials. The official Xinhua news agency said the former Communist party chief of Wukan village in Guangdong province and the former head of the village committee were expelled from the ruling party and ordered to return nearly $45,000 (£28,000) in what it described as illegal gains. Six other former village officials and a dozen higher-level officials were also punished, but no details were provided. Xinhua said authorities found that the village's former officials had been involved in illegal transfers of land-use rights, embezzling property that was collectively owned, accepting bribes and rigging village elections. [Source: Associated Press, April 24, 2012]

Red Apples, Rotten Inside

After the Wukan protests ended, Reuters reported: “A senior Chinese official who helped defuse a standoff with protesting villagers has told colleagues to get used to citizens who are increasingly assertive about their rights, and likened erring local governments to red apples with rotten cores. [Source: Reuters, The Guardian, December 27, 2011]

Zhu Mingguo, a deputy Communist party secretary of southern Guangdong province, helped broker a compromise between the government and residents of Wukan. Guangzhou Daily, the official paper of the provincial capital, quoted Zhu as telling officials that Wukan and other protests were not isolated flare-ups. "In terms of society, the public's awareness of democracy, equality and rights is constantly strengthening, and their corresponding demands are growing," Zhu told a meeting on Monday about preserving social stability, the paper said.

"Public consciousness of rights defence is growing, and the means used to defend rights are increasingly intense," said Zhu. "Their channels for voicing grievances are diverse and there is a tendency for conflicts to become more intense." Zhu cited protests by migrant factory workers who complained about ill-treatment. These areas where unrest erupted had previously won praise as "advanced units" — showcases of growth and harmony, noted Zhu.

"In these areas there were many problems that were not swiftly identified, and when they erupted the consequences were even more serious," said Zhu, referring to the response by local officials. "Like apples, their hearts were rotten even if their skins were red, and when the skins broke there was a real mess."

Zhu put much of the blame for the recent unrest on local administrators. In Wukan, he said, officials had sold off more than two-thirds of the village land without providing for residents' welfare. "Now, where are the state cadres who remember that farmers don't have land for their food?" Zhu told the meeting. "When do they think of the hardships of ordinary people?"If these complaints had been dealt with sooner, would they have ever caused such a big ruckus?"

Villagers denounced local officials as corrupt and heartless throughout their months-long dispute. But they ended up welcoming province officials led by Zhu as brokers who finally stepped in to forge compromise.

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.

Wukan Holds Elections for Seven-Member Village Committee

In February 2012, AP reported: “Chinese villagers in Wukan who staged a rebellion against local officials they accused of stealing their farmland voted for new leaders on Saturday in a much-watched poll that reformers hope will set a standard for resolving similar widespread and protracted disputes. China has allowed village elections for nearly three decades but local Communist party leaders, who hold the real power, often try to manipulate the results. By those standards Wukan is conducting what seems to be one of China's most free polls. [Source: Associated Press, March 3 2012]

Huang Jinqi was among the several thousand people in the small fishing village in southern Guangdong province to fill in a ballot for the seven-member village committee. The 63-year-old farmer said the process was going smoothly and he was satisfied with how it had been organised. "It is open and transparent," he said. Li Lianjiang, an expert on China's local elections and protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: "Hopefully local authorities in other places of Guangdong and even other provinces will refer to Wukan as a precedent when they face similar situations."

The election is being hailed by more liberal Chinese state media and democratic campaigners as the "Wukan model", a systematic approach in which the government uncharacteristically puts the interests of locals ahead of its usual emphasis on maintaining order. Wang Yang, Guangdong's party secretary who has a reputation as a reformer, said Wukan showed that a balance could be struck between "preserving stability and preserving rights".

Many experts said it was far too soon to say if political leaders would summon the will to replicate Wukan's lessons elsewhere. "Wukan so far is an exceptional case," said Li Fan, who runs a private thinktank in Beijing that has been involved in local government experiments. "In this case, no matter how well the Wukan village elections proceed the impact on the development of grass-roots democracy is very limited." The fact that many of the activists in Wukan's revolt ran for membership in the village committee is a precedent. To defuse protests local governments often make concessions, then arrest ringleaders when tempers have subsided, a practice known as "settling accounts after the harvest".

Do China’s Village Protests Like the One in Wukan Help the Regime?

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books, “The overall sense in western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, December 22, 2011]

And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up. If the government is so worried about protests, then why does it make the statistics available in the first place? In fact, most observers say that the vast majority of these disturbances are handled peacefully?the government sends in an inspection team, money is tossed around (to pay back wages or unpaid pensions, for example) and local officials often arrested. The protests usually end quickly and often without violence once the specific issues are solved. Few of the protests make broader demands.

In the case of Wukan, the government hasn’t made much of an effort to control the news. While major newspapers are not reporting the incidents, one of the country’s most important news magazines has just come out with an in-depth and thoughtful article. More notably, the country’s tightly controlled micro-blogs are filled with analysis of the Wukan protests. This is sometimes portrayed in the foreign press as an area of the media outside the government’s control?in part because it assumed that the “Internet can’t be controlled.” But the Internet is actually very skillfully manipulated in China. Articles or posts that the government does not like are quickly deleted by armies of censors who troll the web and by sophisticated software programs that can block sites or posts containing certain words (like “Wukan”). Although cutting-edge Internet aficionados find creative ways around these hindrances, the vast majority of people in China read an Internet that the government has vetted. Hence, blogs about Wukan aren’t a sign of technology undermining government control; instead they are tolerated, if not blessed, by the government.

The idea is to allow people whom the authorities consider unthreatening to write about the protests and come up with useful analyses that don’t pose a challenge to one-party rule. Thus we have seen a steady stream of level-headed reporting and analysis by people like Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who specializes in rural unrest. In postings on the most popular microblog, Sina Weibo, Yu has identified the problem as a conflict between officials’ desire for stability at all costs — hence the heavy-handed police presence in Wukan — and locals’ desire to protect their rights. He argues that the emphasis over the past two decades of economic growth has led to an elite (in this case, big real estate developers) that runs roughshod over poorer members in society.

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

Last updated March 2012

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