Chinese Protesters Take Over Their Town: Why Beijing Should Expect More

More

Eventually the siege will end but the fundamental challenge to Beijing will not

wukan dec16 p.jpg

Residents gather on a street during a demonstration in Wukan village / Reuters

It all began with a protest over illegal land sales and rigged elections. According to the investigative Chinese journal Caixin, the local government in Wukan village in southern Guangdong province had earned over 700 million yuan (roughly US$110 million) from selling collectively-owned farmland but it disbursed only 550 yuan (roughly US$86) to each villager. Moreover, the highly unpopular village party secretary and director had rigged the local elections, managing to hold on to power for 40 years as a result. The villagers had been unhappy about the situation for a number of years and have complained by petition since 2009. However, there was no resolution until they finally took to the streets in September.

The good news is that by late November after a few months of protest -- some of it violent -- the villagers succeeded in ousting the two village leaders. The Chinese media argued at the time that Guangdong, under Party Secretary Wang Yang (a candidate for the Standing Committee of the Politburo in the 2012-2013 leadership transition), was pursuing a new approach to social unrest, one that tried to "balance maintaining stability and basic rights while helping people to express their needs."

The bad news is that the balance still isn't quite right. In recent days, the Wukan villagers have seized control of the village, demonstrating against the alleged cover-up of police brutality that led to the death on December 11 of Xue Jinbo, a demonstration leader. The Chinese media have also gone dark. There is no more talk about the new way of handling protests. On December 14, the acting mayor of Shanwei City Wu Zili said that in regards to organizations planning to "incite trouble," the government is determined to crack down on the destruction of public property and the obstruction of official business. The local government is now trying to starve the villagers out by setting up five roadblocks with guards all around the village to prevent food and other resources from coming in and workers from leaving.

Eventually the siege will end but the fundamental challenge to Beijing will not. Every year, despite the country's impressive economic growth, the number of protests grows. By one estimate, Beijing now contends with 180,000 so-called "mass incidents". The why of these protests is no mystery: the lack of the rule of law, transparency, and official accountability. These are the structural elements that define the country's political system and allow corruption to flourish. In the Wukan case, the villagers are protesting corruption in both land sales and the electoral process. Whether the protests are over these issues or the environment or defective products, the root cause is the same.

The Democracy ReportBeijing'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.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Elizabeth Economy is a senior fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and blogs for "Asia Unbound."

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In