But what is perhaps most remarkable, and
remarkably typical, of the Wukan movement was the protesters' insistence
on declaring fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. Though China's 2011
could have possibly seen more mass demonstrations than the entire Arab
world, this is one reason that China probably remains far away from an
Arab Spring-style revolutionary movement. Popular movements here seem to
express relatively narrow complaints, want to work within the system
rather than topple it, and treat the Communist Party as legitimate.
Protests appear to be part of the system, not a challenge
to it -- a sort of release valve for popular anger that, if anything, could have actually strengthened the Party by giving them a way to address that
anger while maintaining autocratic rule. In the absence of real
democracy, this give-and-take between state and society could actually help maintain
political stability in China -- for now.
That tradition goes
back at least a decade, to a climax of labor movement protests in spring
2002. In the steel city of Liaoyang that May, thousands of workers
massed in protest. Corrupt local officials had siphoned small fortunes
out of the town's factories, forcing many of them to shut down and send
their workers home without their pensions, which the officials had also
plundered. Liaoyang's problems then, like Wukan's today, were not
atypical: the national movement toward privatization had given party
officials special access, allowing them to get rich overnight as part of
a new and burgeoning crony capitalist class while powerless workers
As in Wukan last month, Liaoyang's 2002 protest was
exceptional for its size -- tens of thousands marched over several
days, shutting down the city and forcing senior Communist Party
officials to respond -- but its leaders deliberately stopped short, even
after being attacked by security forces, of publicly questioning the
Communist Party's total rule. They wrote letters to senior officials,
whom they addressed as "respected elder" or "beloved," emphasizing that
the protesters were loyal to the Communist Party and asking only for
those officials to enforce preexisting laws against corruption.
Philip Pan, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, reported in his 2008 book Out of Mao's Shadow
that the protest leaders privately agreed that single-party rule was
the underlying cause of Liaoyang's problems, but were afraid to publicly
criticize it or call for democracy and ultimately decided to appeal to
senior Party leaders rather than challenge them.
long as the political system remained unchanged, they agreed, those
with positions of power could always abuse it, and workers could hope
only for marginal improvements in their lives. For real progress, they
thought democratic reform was necessary, and they believed that most
workers supported such a goal. But they also knew that persuading
workers to participate in a protest advocating democratic change would
be all but impossible. The workers had internalized the lessons of the
Tiananmen massacre. Everybody knew that the party would quickly crush a
direct challenge to its authority, and nobody wanted to go to prison.
People were too afraid.
The memory of
Tiananmen has faded in the decade since 2002. But the dynamic of China's
hundreds of daily demonstrations has remained the same. So has the
Party's uncanny ability to keep dissent both "within-system" and
small-scale, almost never revolutionary in nature or even publicly
critical of the autocracy inherent in Communist Party rule.