Wang Yang: The Future Torchbearer of Reform?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 11

"The Young Marshal"

With the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress a mere six months or so away, the identity of senior cadres who will make the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) has pretty much been settled. Apart from Vice President Xi Jinping and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang—who are deemed shoo-ins for the posts of general secretary and premier, respectively—seven of the following eight current ordinary Politburo members are tipped for elevation to the inner sanctum of power: Vice Premiers Wang Qishan and Zhang Dejiang; Director of the Organization Department Li Yuanchao; the Guangdong, Tianjin and Shanghai Party Secretaries, respectively, Wang Yang, Zhang Gaoli and Yu Zhengsheng; Director of the Propaganda Department Liu Yushan; and State Councilor Liu Yandong (Ming Pao (Hong Kong), April 18; New York Times, May 17; Asia Times, May 11). Of these ten cadres, Wang Yang, age 57, is the only one who the past few years has consistently spoken out in favor of reform—including some degree of political liberalization. The question on the minds of China observers is whether Wang can pick up the threads of political reform in his capacity as the leader of the much-attenuated group of liberals within the CCP and among the nation’s intelligentsia.

Wang’s reformist track record has been thrown into sharp relief by the downfall of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who engineered what is considered the most ferocious Maoist political movement since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Much has been written about the contrast between the crypto-Maoist, egalitarian and paternalistic approach that the Chongqing leadership has taken in economic and political matters on the one hand, and the pro-market, transparent and relatively liberal policies in Guangdong on the other. While there is no evidence to suggest Wang played a role in Bo’s disgrace, there seems little doubt that the “Guangdong Model” has gained a lot more respectability at the expense of the largely discredited “Chongqing Model” (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 19; Ming Pao, May 18; Straits Times [Singapore], May 17).

Since Wang, a former party secretary of Chongqing, assumed his current post in late 2007, he has shared the limelight with Premier Wen Jiabao—who is also a harsh critic of Bo—as one of only a handful of avid proponents of political reform in the CCP’s upper echelons. There is, however, a striking difference between Wen and Wang, whose nickname is “Young Marshal.” The premier is given to voicing grand principles. He likes to repeat famous dictums delivered by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, such as “without reform, there is only the road to perdition” and “political reform must be implemented in lockstep with economic reform” (“Premier Wen’s ‘Southern Tour’: Ideological Rifts in the CCP?” China Brief, September 10, 2010). Yet the soon-to-retire Wen has failed to lay down specific road maps for attaining liberalization. Wang, on the other hand, has gone in considerably more depth regarding both the theory and practice of reform.

More so that Premier Wen, Wang has put the emphasis on the masses’ participation in the political process. In a much-noted speech earlier this month, Wang told Guangdong cadres that “we must shake off the wrong idea that the people owe their welfare and happiness to some dispensation from the party and government.” Wang added “We must safeguard the initiative and creativity of the masses” (Xinhua, May 11; China News Service, May 9). Moreover, the native of AnhuiProvince has given a convincing explanation as to why it has become more difficult than ever to resuscitate reform. Wang told Chinese and foreign reporters at the National People’s Congress this spring, “At the early stage of reform, the obstacles [to reform] were mainly due to ideological differences. Now, the major problems faced by reform come from the configuration of interest [groups at the top].” This tallies with the commonly held perception that big clans and power blocs in the party—which control trillions of yuan in assets—are opposed to political reform for fear that their monopoly on wealth may be dented. Wang’s proposal for cracking this problem was bold: “To solve the problem of vested interest groups holding up reform, we must first perform surgery on the party and the government” (Ming Pao, May 10; New Beijing Post, March 6).

Wang’s most notable contribution to liberalizing the political system is his unorthodox handling of the Wukan Village crisis of late 2011. Early last December, close to 20,000 peasants in Wukan, which is located in southern Guangdong, threw out their local CCP cadres and set up their own administration. The allegedly corrupt officials were accused of illegally selling the villagers’ land to a Hong Kong developer without giving the farmers adequate compensation. At first, the authorities surrounded the village with thousands of police and People’s Armed Police. Wang, however, decided to recognize the villagers’ rights and not to penalize the “rebel leaders.” New elections were held in January this year and Lin Zulian, the brains behind the “peasant insurrection,” was chosen as the new head of Wukan. The initial land sale was nullified and several responsible officials were detained on corruption charges (Ming Pao, January 16; Wall Street Journal, January 15; Caixin, December 19, 2011).

Wang, who obviously wants to claim credit for having come up with a more humane approach to the CCP’s foremost task of wei-wen (preserving stability), has indicated that the “Wukan Model” will be applied to the rest of the province. “The Wukan [Model] was not only meant to solve problems in the village, but also to set a reference standard to reform village governance across Guangdong,” he told the Chinese media. Wang added “People’s democratic awareness is increasing significantly in this changing society,” and “When their appeals for rights aren’t getting enough attention, that’s when mass incidents happen” (South China Morning Post, January 5; China News Service, January 3). Not all problems in Wukan have been solved. For example, only a small portion of the illegally expropriated land has been returned to the peasants. A number of liberal scholars, however, have pushed for the nationwide application of the “Wukan Model.” “The Wukan experience has pushed forward the democratization of farmers’ participation in village administration,” said Beijing University social scientist Li Chengyan, “This successful example of democratic self-rule at the grassroots level should be duplicated elsewhere in China” (, March 16; Phoenix TV [Hong Kong], March 15).

Guangdong also is ahead of most other provinces and major cities in implementing “intra-party democracy.” Together with Jiangsu Province, Guangdong has been a pioneer in the relatively open way in which medium-ranked to relatively senior cadres are selected. Candidates for positions up to the level of vice directors of provincial departments have to pass a public-opinion test; short-listed candidates also must engage in public debates that are sometimes broadcast on local television (The Economist, November 26, 2011; Xinhua, November 23, 2010; [Shenzhen], October 14, 2010). At the Guangdong Party Congress held early this month, the Standing Committee members of the Guangdong Party Committee were chosen through cha’e or competitive elections. Thus, the 906 congress delegates cast secret ballots to pick the 13 top office-bearers out of 14 short-listed candidates. In the past, such senior cadres in Guangdong as well as other regions were “elected” through deng’e or non-competitive elections. (Xinhua, May 6; Nanfang Daily, May 6).

Equally significantly, “Young Marshal” Wang has allowed a civil society with Chinese characteristics to play a relatively big role in provincial affairs. Guangdong leads the country in the latitude that is granted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in areas, such as social welfare and environmental protection. This follows Wang’s idea that his administration should make the switch from “all-embracing governance” to “limited governance.” He pointed out that social organizations and NGOs should be allowed to “handle some areas of social management and social services” (China Youth Daily, January 18; China News Service, July 12, 2011). Last year, Wang instructed the Guangdong Civil Affairs Department and other units to simplify procedures for the registration of NGOs and other minjian, or “people-sector.” organizations. According to public administration Professor Hu Huihua in Guangzhou-based Jinan University, Guangdong officials in charge of NGOs “have an open attitude” toward non-governmental associations. “The future direction is clear,” he noted, “The Guangdong government seems set to give more powers to minjian organs” (Southern Metropolitan News [Guangzhou] May 3; People’s Daily, January 13).

Guangdong also has chalked up a reputation for a relatively high tolerance for media criticism of the party and government. Such well-known publications as Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan News have won praise for their daring treatment of controversial political figures and topics. For example, these two papers have run articles about dissidents and officially-censured public intellectuals ranging from rebel artist Ai Weiwei to avant-garde journalist Li Datong (, March 20; Southern Weekend, March 8). Wang has often urged reporters to “give voice to the masses.” Last month, the party chief raised eyebrows when he noted that he would provide plainclothes police to protect journalists who did muck-raking stories on fake and pirated products in the province (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], May 8; Nanfang Daily, May 7).

Not long after Wang took up his post as Guangdong’s party chief in late 2007, he caused a stir by calling upon the nation’s cadres and intellectuals to initiate the CCP’s “third wave of thought liberation.” The first wave of thought liberation was a reference to Deng Xiaoping’s dismantling of the Maoist “whateverism” (“whatever Mao Zedong said is correct”) and the second wave consisted in Deng’s dictums on the resumption of economic liberalization, which were given during his 1992 tour of southern China. The “third wave” referred to a judicious mixture of economic as well as political reform (, April 12, 2008; China Newsweek [Beijing], April 11, 2008). It is apparent, however, that Wang has in his four-and-half-year tenure only accomplished a small part of his agenda. Take for example, popular participation in politics through grassroots elections. When polls were held last summer to pick deputies to town- and township-level people’s congresses—as well as district-level parliaments in the cities—so-called independent candidates in Guangdong were stripped of their eligibility to take part in the elections. This was despite well-understood regulations that any Chinese citizen can run as non-affiliated candidates after he or she has gathered signatures from 50 members of the relevant constituency (, August 7, 2011; Radio Free Asia, May 27, 2011). Similar instances of the deprivation of the electoral rights of independent candidates—which was implemented in an apparent attempt to foster political stability—took place throughout China (“Local Elections Open for All but the Independent Candidates,” China Brief, September 16, 2011).

The crackdown on independent candidates shows even someone apparently as reform-minded as Wang has had to make concessions to the wei-wen imperative, and this has included taking a more direct hand in managing Guangdong’s aggressive and courageous journalists. One recent indication of this eroding press freedom is that a career commissar, the Deputy Director of the Guangdong Propaganda Department Yang Jian, was named earlier this month the party secretary of the Nanfang Daily Media Group, which controls Southern Weekend and other outspoken Guangdong papers. Yang replaced Yang Xingfeng, who began his journalistic career as a reporter at Nanfang Daily in 1982 ( [Beijing], May 3). Similarly, Chen Zhong, the liberal chief editor of Guangzhou-based Nanfeng Chuang (“Window of Southerly Wind”), a respected muck-raking journal, was replaced last year by Zhou Chenghua, a propaganda cadre known for his rigorous censorship (, November 29, 2011; Radio Free Asia, August 19, 2011). These developments broke with the long-standing Guangdong media tradition of naming former journalists and not commissars to positions of news executives.

A keen concern of those interested in the future of reform not only in Guangdong but nationwide is the extent to which Wang can persevere with his taboo-smashing crusade after his expected promotion to the PBSC at the 18th Party Congress. “Much hinges on the portfolio that Wang will secure after his entry to the PBSC,” said Beijing-based social scientist Liu Junning, who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a political scientist. Liu said “If Wang is in charge of areas not having to do with ideology or party affairs, he may lack the clout to do much about political reform” [1]. After all, such has been the case of Premier Wen—who has authority over the economy, but not much else. “Grandpa Wen” has often been criticized for merely talking about liberalization—but without any follow-up action. Moreover, moves on weighty issues—such as the direction of economic or political reform—require a consensual decision by the entire PBSC. Yet the great majority of the likely new PBSC members, including “crown prince” Xi Jinping, are known as defenders of the status quo rather than risk-takers. If, as is likely, the post-18th Party Congress PBSC will continue to take wei-wen as the party’s overriding task, the chances of the nationwide application of the reforms that Wang has so painstaking eked out in Guangdong may be relatively slim.


  1. Author’s Interview with Liu Junning, May 2012.