The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 1

Senior Guangdong Cadre, Zhu Mingguo, Makes Peace with Wukan

The apparently peaceful resolution of the “land grab” crisis in the Guangdong village of Wukan has been hailed as Beijing’s new model for tackling dissent. Last September, 15,000 peasants in Wukan in southeastern Guangdong Province, began staging protests against cadres who had illegally sold their land to a real estate developer. No compensation was paid to the residents. After Xue Jinbo, a respected village representative, died in police custody on December 11, Wukan residents booted out the local party and police officials and set up barricades on roads leading to the fishing village. Guangdong authorities responded by surrounding Wukan with a few thousand public security and People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers. Food, water and electricity supplies were cut off. Yet on December 22, Guangdong Deputy Provincial Party Secretary Zhu Mingguo, the province’s third-ranking cadre, negotiated a settlement with Lin Zuluan, the newly elected chief village representative. While the full details of the agreement had not been disclosed, Lin and other village representatives indicated Zhu had affirmed the villagers’ right to protests. The “provisional administration” headed by Lin was recognized. Several Wukan activists who had clashed with the police were released. The law enforcement officers withdrew. The villagers removed their barricades and let off firecrackers in celebration (Wall Street Journal, December 23; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] December 22). 

Many questions however have been raised about the Wukan incident. Has justice been done to the villagers? What lies behind the Guangdong authorities’ decision not to use force against Wukan’s singular act of defiance? More importantly, is there a consensus within the CCP’s top echelon that the conciliatory approach represented by the so-called Wukan model will be adopted for future cases of confrontation between disaffected social elements and the authorities? Given that some 65 percent of China’s “mass incidents” are due to misappropriation of land, has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration come up with effective measures to curb the malpractice?

One day after his successful negotiation with Wukan’s self-elected leaders, Deputy Provincial Party Secretary Zhu re-visited Wukan. “We shall adequately handle Wukan’s problems according to laws and regulations, and in a fair and open manner,” said Zhu. He noted the authorities in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, had sent special “work teams” to Wukan to investigate the misappropriation and illegal use of land as well as corruption amongst cadres. Zhu disclosed that several Wukan officials had been detained for questioning. Moreover, Wang Yemin, head of one of the work teams, said last week that the elections in Wukan in February 2011–which produced the corrupt and now ousted village heads, –had been declared invalid. Polls for a new village administrative committee (VAC) will be held in early 2012 (Xinhua, December 29; Nanfang Daily [Guangzhou] December 24, 2011). Yet chief village representative Lin was skeptical about the outcome. He told the Hong Kong media that “more than 100,000 square meters of land have been taken away from us and it is not sure when the land will be returned.” Moreover, it is not clear whether the five or so “hooligans” temporarily “released on bail” by the police might face retribution. It is not uncommon for police to nab the alleged ringleaders of disturbances after peace has been restored and media attention has drifted away (Ming Pao, December 24; South China Morning Post, [Hong Kong], December 25).        

Moreover, misgivings remain regarding the motives behind Guangdong Party Secretary and Politburo member Wang Yang’s decision to use placatory instead of iron-fisted strategies against Wuhan. It is true that Wang, 56, nicked-named “Young Marshal” for his brisk decision-making style, has a relatively reformist reputation. Yet commentators in both the Hong Kong and foreign media have pointed out his anxiety to prevent the Wukan incident from worsening to the point where it might have jeopardized his chances of promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming 18th CCP Congress. This concern was compounded by the few dozen reporters from Hong Kong and foreign media that descended on Wukan in the week leading to the December 22 breakthrough (New York Times, December 31, 2011; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], December 28, 2011). It is noteworthy that in another recent confrontation between Guangdong residents and police—inhabitants of the town of Haimen protesting against the expansion of a power plant that has caused serious pollution—public security officers used traditional tactics to deal with the crisis. PAP officers used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Several protestors were badly beaten up, despite the pledge by Guangzhou that a temporary moratorium had been put on future plans of the plant (CNN, December 20; China Daily, December 23).   

Does the Wukan case indeed mean that central- and local-level officials will henceforward lean toward relatively conciliatory and non-violent means to tackle protests by peasants and other disaffected elements in society? At least on the surface, Wang Yang’s handling of Wukan has won the support of the state media. The People’s Daily hailed Guangzhou’s efforts as an example of “accommodating and defusing contradictions and conflicts in a good way.” It praised Guangdong leaders for “grasping well the aspirations of the masses.” The commentary noted whether officials could satisfactorily resolve questions regarding the masses’ malcontents was a “yardstick of cadres’ ties with the people as well as their leadership ability.” The Global Times praised Guangdong leaders for “putting the interests of the public in the first place when handling land disputes” (People’s Daily, December 22, 2011; Global Times [Beijing], December 22, 2011; Bloomberg, December 22, 2011). The Wukan model also won plaudits from members of the remnant liberal wing of the party, a reference to the followers of radical, pro-West modernizers represented by the late party secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. “I hope that the Wukan incident can push society to establish a system which is based on democracy and the rule of law,” said Hu Deping, the respected son of Hu Yaobang, “I hope that when we are faced with similar problems in the future, we can resort to the rule of law and negotiation” (South China Morning Post, December 30, 2011;, December 30, 2011).

A national meeting on law and order recently convened by the CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC) seemed to endorse the conciliatory approach. CPLAC Secretary and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang called on cadres in the police, prosecutor’s offices and courts system to “cultivate a harmonious and stable social environment.” “We must enthusiastically prevent and defuse contradictions and disputes and promote social harmony,” Zhou said. “We must enhance and come up with innovative ways in social management, and boost the level of public services.” Zhou’s dictums squared with a series of instructions given by other Politburo members about promoting “large-scale reconciliation” so as to preempt and lessen the impact of socio-political contradictions (Legal Daily, December 24, 2011; Xinhua, December 21, 2011).

However, it is important to note that Zhou and other members of the ruling elite have not given up the CCP authorities’ time-tested strategy of tackling dissent: to switch between soft and tough tactics in accordance with the requirement of different circumstances. In the CPLAC conference, Zhou made reference to having “planned and implemented various types of operations to ensure stability and to counter emergencies, which have succeeded in safeguarding national security and social stability.” Apart from cracking down hard on subversive and “anti-state” elements in Tibet and Xinjiang, law enforcement units have pulled out all the stops to muzzle and even imprison dissidents, including NGO activists and human-rights lawyers who have represented disenfranchised urban and rural residents in hundreds of land-grab cases nationwide (Ming Pao, December 27, 2011; Human Rights Watch [New York], December 26, 2011).

Foremost among activist lawyers harassed by state security are internationally-renowned attorneys Gao Zhisheng and Ni Yulan. Last month, Gao was put back in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” In 2006, he was given a three-year jail term but was later granted a five-year probation, during which he was subjected to tight surveillance and occasional beatings by plainclothes police officers (Voice of America, December 23, 2011; Reuters, December 16, 2011). Last week, the Beijing municipal court started proceedings against Ni, a female lawyer who had frequently acted on behalf of victims of illegal land appropriation. Ni, who was charged with fraud and causing civil disturbances, had to be carried to the court on a stretcher due to injuries reportedly caused by heavy beatings by police (The Associated Press, December 30, 2011; The Guardian [London], December 29, 2011). At the same time, the National People’s Congress has proceeded with the revision of the Criminal Procedure Law. One change is to empower public security officers to detain people suspected of threatening state security in secret locations for indefinite periods—and without the need to inform their family members or legal representatives (New York Times, December 16, 2011; Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2011). 

While national- and local-level cadres seem to be debating the best methods to handle dissent as well as “destabilizing social incidents,” the State Council has made new pledges about protecting the rights of farmers. At a national conference on rural work held last month, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged national and regional cadres would try their best to safeguard the economic and legal interests of peasants. “We can no longer sacrifice farmers’ land ownership rights to reduce urbanization and industrialization costs,” Xinhua News Agency quoted Wen as saying. “We must significantly increase farmers’ gains from the increase in land value.” Wen also said peasants should not be forced to give up their land even if they move to cities. “No one is empowered to take away such rights.” The premier added that “we must also pay attention to expanding the parameters of village self-government” (Xinhua, December 28, 2011; Reuters, December 28, 2011).

At least in theory, there are enough statues on the law books that forbid cadres and developers from forcing urbanites and peasants to leave their properties and land without the payment of adequate compensation. However, land and related transactions account for at least half of the revenues of regional administrations. In 2010, for instance, local governments raked in about 2.9 trillion yuan ($460 billion) worth of income from land sales. Unfortunately, most local administrations are heavily in debt partly due to misguided investments in infrastructure and property-related ventures. Especially after the global financial crisis broke out in late 2008, sub-national cadres are anxious to embark on infrastructure and other job-creation programs both to provide employment and to jack up the GDP expansion rate. Satisfactory economic growth is seen as indispensable for officials’ promotion prospects given the importance that GDP statistics figure in the assessment procedures of the Chinese cadre system. In mid-2011, the State Auditing Administration estimated local governments, together with government-related urban development investment vehicles, had run up debts totaling 10.72 trillion yuan ($1.7 trillion). Western credit agencies reckoned that the figure could be as high as 14 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion). ( “Local Debt Problems Highlight Weak Links in China’s Economic Model,” China Brief, July 15, 2011)
Since income from land sales are a principal means for local governments to service their debts as well as pay the salaries of civil servants, Beijing is prone to turn a blind eye to their property-related deals (Apple Daily, December 29, 2011; Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2011). In light of central authorities’ anxiety to uphold socio-political stability, it also is not difficult for regional cadres to justify their employment of police and PAP officers to quell protests of whatever nature. Unless, as Hu Deping pointed out, the CCP leadership is ready to uphold rule of law—and allow activist lawyers to defend the rights of the victims of land grab and official corruption—deep-seated social contradictions will remain despite a couple of cases of the apparently fair and transparent resolution of “mass incidents.”