BARON LAUDERMILK - 13 JANUARY 2011
It may be true that the peaceful resolution between Wukan, a coastal southern village in Guangdong province, and the local government and the party officials sets a new precedent for the future. It is indeed shocking and unprecedented to see an obscure village of just 20,000 people evict its corrupt communist party officials and police force and block off the city until its demands are met. For more than two weeks, the village governed itself without any state or central government control, and staged massive protests against the officials selling farmland to property developers without giving appropriate compensation to the owners of the land. People of all ages were fed up with the government’s abuse of its powers, land grabs, income disparities, and the possible police brutality case involving a local village leader. The Wukan people who had nothing to lose planned to protest until justice was implemented fairly. As one villager said, “If the government doesn't meet its commitments, we'll protest again.”
Despite the glimmer of hope that came out of Wukan’s success, China’s one-party system, which has been dominated by the Communist Party since the founding of the People’s Republic, has publically repeated that it will do whatever it takes to maintain its power. Wukan did have a victory, but it is far from a precedent that other villagers, activists and lawyers can depend on. I firmly believe that luck played a major part in saving Wukan from being swiftly quelled by an experienced police force.
On December 18, 2011 it appeared that the Chinese government was ready to break down the barricade the Wukan people had made to repel the police force, and brutally regain the city. There were three main reasons why this seemed like a possibility. The first one was that many foreign journalists were expelled, which was a gloomy forecast that the police were preparing to take control over the village and solve the problem through forceful means. Hong Kong-based Cable Television journalist Lam Kin-Seng, three of his colleagues, and three Japanese journalists were forced out of Wukan by the police. A few foreign journalists were allowed to stay, including the New York Times and the UK Daily Telegraph, but their movements were restricted by the presence of armed police officers. According to Lam, he was in a restaurant in Wukan writing an article about the situation until he was stopped by several plain-clothed police officers. They told him to leave because the “village has internal conflicts” and “for the protection of his own safety”. Lam insisted that he did not feel threatened, but then the police encircled him and forced him out of city.
The second sign that demonstrated the police were ready to take out Wukan's protest was that they shut down the Internet and censored the word "Wukan" across the country. IFJ sources claim that local Internet service providers received an order from the government to shut down all the Internet connections in the village. This approach was also implemented right before the riots in Xinjiang were squashed in 2009. The internet being forcefully shut down was another grave sign that indicated the Chinese authorities were planning on forcibly taking down the village and “socially harmonizing it.”
The third sign of the government’s preparations to eliminate the Wukan protest was that they had surrounded it by thousands of armed policemen, cutting off food and water to and from the village. On December 19, 2011 the police force increased its forces and encircled the whole village. No one was allowed to enter or leave the village, which was demonstrating against the possible cover-up of the death of Xue Jinbo, who villagers claim the police tortured and murdered.
The luck that the villagers of Wukan had was that they protested at the right time. Less than a year from now the highest party officials will step down and new ones will take their place. The highest official in Guangdong province, Wang Yang, was said to have been using this situation to ensure his image stays in a good light. He has aspirations for a top party position. Wang Yang is aware that if it had crushed these protests, social media outlets such as Weibo and Renren, the Chinese version of Twitter and Facebook, would have demonized him. The last thing he wants right now is blood on his hands. Mr. Yang decided to use peaceful means to settle the protest in order to keep his name intact to ensure his rise in the Communist Party.
Many people who study protests and movements in China have said that the Chinese government must take this Wukan incident seriously. Elizabeth C. Economy, a Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies and an expert on Chinese domestic policy, commented in an article called Occupy Wukan: China’s 99 Percent that although the Chinese government will probably not change much after the Wukan protesting, they need to or the people will take matters into their own hands. Beijing’s take-away from the Wukan protest probably won’t be much more than, “It’s time to launch another [ineffective] anti-corruption campaign.” The real take-away, however, is that it is time to listen to what Premier Wen Jiabao had to say a few months ago in Dalian:
“We must govern the country by law… We need to uphold judicial justice…People’s democratic rights and interests prescribed in the Constitution must be protected. The most important ones are the right to vote and to stay informed about, participate in, and oversee government affairs.”
Put more bluntly, if the 5th generation* of Party leaders doesn’t listen to Wen and seize the initiative on political reform, it is looking more and more likely that the Chinese people will.
Frequently the Chinese officials call out for the protection of human rights and for the rule of law to support people’s property, but such action rarely materializes. There is an estimated 180,000 protests that erupt throughout China every year, all for different reasons. The majority of them are censured, and quietly silenced without a peep. As the New York Times said in October 2011, “local authorities have so far shown they are not afraid to spill blood, or at least knock a few heads (to evict someone for land development)”.
The success of Wukan has not stopped the Chinese government from detaining people who pose a threat to the Party’s rule. On December 23, 2011, Chen Wei, a democracy activist, was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion of the Chinese government. He was detained in February for writing four essays that argued the Chinese should imitate the protests that occurred in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring. During his trial, Chen’s lawyer’s arguments were frequently interrupted and ignored. Chen’s wife and many others believe that the punishment does not fit the crime. His wife told Time that he is innocent, and that he should be able to express his views. "He is innocent and the punishment was too harsh. The court did not allow him to defend himself and his freedom of speech was completely deprived of…What's wrong about a person freely expressing his ideas?" Just last March, Wang Lihong was also detained for staging protests. The Chinese central government has not changed its attitude towards protest despite the glimmer of hope we saw in Wukan.
On December 28, 2011, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minster who is recognized as the voice of democratic progress and the protection of civil rights, called for officials to better protect the rights of farmers to ensure that they receive a fairer and more equal share of protection, especially when farmland is being sold for residential and business use. Construction accounts for about 13 percent of China’s GDP. The bubble-economy has not burst yet, and investors are still attempting to make fast money through this outlet. But until the Chinese government can ensure investors that its banking system is sound, investors will continue to pour billions of dollars into real estate. Many wealthy real estate investors depend on government officials acquiring farmland-rights so they can build new residential homes, hotels, office spaces and malls. As long as the real estate moguls and the government officials scratch each other’s backs, the 99% in villages near expanding cities will always be a threatened by the 1 percent. The people of Wukan were able to fight against this well-established relationship between the real estate investors and the government, but many villages, that are much smaller and less organized, are potential victims.
There is no doubt that the success of Wukan will vibrate into the future of China. I am sure that other villages, activists, and lawyers have learned that the Chinese government does have weaknesses. China is no longer what it was during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, when it killed innocent students protesting in the streets of Beijing for democracy and civil rights. China is now aware that the world expects it to act like a leader, which means they must peacefully solve internal conflicts. Yes, China still detains citizens it sees are a threat, and it still subdues protests, but it has become relatively more peaceful and uses different tactics to extinguish protests. Only two people were killed during the protests, Xue Jinbo, who suspiciously died in police custody, and a child.
I agree with Dr. Elizabeth Economy that the Chinese government will probably just launch another anti-corruption campaign and have Wen Jiabao demand change. But nothing significant will change. The invested interests are deep. The only way to create major change throughout the political system would be through completely altering the economy and how its leaders are selected. This is a process that we may not see in our lifetimes. Scholars have been arguing that it is just a matter of time before China’s Communist Party falls, and a democratic government replaces it. They point towards the local village elections as proof that change will come. But the central government ensures that the Party itself chooses important village leadership positions. Furthermore, the village elections have not at all penetrated the central government, which is still handled behind closed doors. Wukan’s success will be a glimmer of hope for Chinese political activists and for farmers and migrant workers across China. But the status quo will not change unless a massive farmer rebellion spreads to other villages across China, which is unlikely, or the elites’ ideology changes. Such a massive change in belief is more possible than a large-scale rebellion, but still unlikely in the near future.