Roving thoughts and provocations

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Do China’s Village Protests Help the Regime?

AFP/Getty Images
Residents at a rally in Wukan, in Guangdong Province, December 17, 2011

Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public land and villagers get nothing. Anger builds and protests erupt. Inept local officials negotiate and then turn to violence, in this case encircling the town with police in hopes of starving the population into submission.

According to interviews with villagers, officials had been selling off communal land in Wukan since the early 1990s, with few locals seeing any of the proceeds. Resentment finally boiled over this autumn when the last large plot of land in the village was sold—at a time when rising inflation meant many villagers wanted the land to grow their own crops. They rioted, chased the party leaders out of town, and chose a dozen representatives to negotiate. Their demands were that the sales be investigated and officials removed.

Police then allegedly kidnapped five of these leaders and beat one of them to death, igniting the most recent protests that have captured the outside world’s attention. The other four remain in police custody. [See update below.] Scores of foreign reporters descended on Wukan, providing blanket coverage of the riots and negotiations between the villagers and government leaders. The riots ended Wednesday after the government made some concessions and villagers agreed to go home.

What to make of all this? The overall sense in Western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding.

And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up. If the government is so worried about protests, then why does it make the statistics available in the first place? In fact, most observers say that the vast majority of these disturbances are handled peacefully—the government sends in an inspection team, money is tossed around (to pay back wages or unpaid pensions, for example) and local officials often arrested. The protests usually end quickly and often without violence once the specific issues are solved. Few of the protests make broader demands.

In the case of Wukan, the government hasn’t made much of an effort to control the news. While major newspapers are not reporting the incidents, one of the country’s most important news magazines has just come out with an in-depth and thoughtful article. More notably, the country’s tightly controlled micro-blogs are filled with analysis of the Wukan protests. This is sometimes portrayed in the foreign press as an area of the media outside the government’s control—in part because it assumed that the “Internet can’t be controlled.” But the Internet is actually very skillfully manipulated in China. Articles or posts that the government does not like are quickly deleted by armies of censors who troll the web and by sophisticated software programs that can block sites or posts containing certain words (like “Wukan”). Although cutting-edge Internet aficionados find creative ways around these hindrances, the vast majority of people in China read an Internet that the government has vetted. Hence, blogs about Wukan aren’t a sign of technology undermining government control; instead they are tolerated, if not blessed, by the government.

The idea is to allow people whom the authorities consider unthreatening to write about the protests and come up with useful analyses that don’t pose a challenge to one-party rule. Thus we have seen a steady stream of level-headed reporting and analysis by people like Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who specializes in rural unrest. In postings over the past ten days on the most popular microblog, Sina Weibo, Yu has identified the problem as a conflict between officials’ desire for stability at all costs—hence the heavy-handed police presence in Wukan—and locals’ desire to protect their rights. He argues that the emphasis over the past two decades of economic growth has led to an elite (in this case, big real estate developers) that runs roughshod over poorer members in society.

If this sounds like a radical, edgy analysis for China, it isn’t. Yu’s blog has 1.3 million followers. Open discussion of China’s wealth gap and local corruption are standard fare in Chinese academic journals and even in more mainstream media. Such news is harder to discuss in mass publications or on television, but the party has always kept the tightest reins on the media with the biggest audience. So the fact that Wukan isn’t on the front page of national newspapers but is being forthrightly discussed in narrower—though still widely accessible—forums is entirely predictable.

Perhaps this raises the question of why the government allows discussion of these issues at all. China’s technocrats are not fools. They realize that these are serious problems and they want them solved. This is why a growing rights consciousness is not entirely opposed by the party. When I looked at rural unrest in China a decade ago, I was surprised that many farmers found out by watching television news that they were being overtaxed. Aware that local officials were overtaxing locals and causing riots, the authorities in Beijing broadcast new tax codes, making sure that people knew that it was not government policy to tax them to death. Some locals rioted and many others filed class-action lawsuits—but in the end local taxation was reduced (and eventually eliminated entirely). This wasn’t despite central government efforts, but because of them. The result is that rural protests, which were a regular feature of 1990s China, are far less common.

Academics have a term for this: “adaptive authoritarianism.” As Peter L. Lorentzen of the University of California, Berkeley, has written, officials view protests as way to gauge popular discontent. Small-scale protests function as a feedback mechanism for the government of a country without an active civil society or elections. Far from being a harbinger of regime change, Lorentzen argues that, in China at least, they can stabilize the regime.

The most recent developments in Wukan seem to reflect this pattern. After talks between villagers and township authorities went nowhere, the much more powerful provincial government sent in a negotiating team on Wednesday. It was led by an official close to the governor, Wang Yang, who is widely seen as a top candidate to join the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo. This is the small body (the exact size varies but is usually under ten members) that effectively runs China and that will get new members next October. The villagers seem to have reduced their demands and these seem to have been met. Soon after the meeting, the protests were called off.

But while the Wukan protests seem to have been skillfully managed, the government only allows the discussion to go so far. It’s okay to say that local officials are corrupt or that the real estate deal in question was wrong. But it is not acceptable to have protesters link up with each other in a national network. And it is certainly not acceptable to criticize the root cause of Wukan’s problems—China’s lack of checks and balances that allow local officials to rule like warlords for decades before local finally explode and the problems are finally addressed. These deep-structure issues are still taboo.

Although these tactics are working now, their efficacy in the long run is less clear. As Chinese have become wealthier and better educated, they are demanding more control over their lives. In a more mature political system, civil society—the press, courts, non-governmental organizations, and civic associations—could help address situations like a village protest before they require the direct intervention of one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

It’s no coincidence either that the Wukan uprising was spurred by another growing worry in China: the country’s mounting economic challenges. China’s real estate bubble is deflating, inflation remains stubborn, and exports are facing new competition. These can only add to tensions in society, forcing leaders to stick more and more of their fingers in the political system’s holes. But given the élan of China’s millennia-old bureaucracy, the system itself does not seem at risk, at least in the absence of some far larger precipitating event. In the meantime, the lessons of Wukan may be that the country’s leaders can leap from wall to wall, plugging leaks and keeping the system working far longer than Westerners can imagine.

Update January 3, 2012: Shortly after the standoff ended, three of the four detained village leaders were released, according to villagers reached by telephone.The fourth remains in police custody pending the outcome of a separate investigation. Villagers are still waiting for the release of the corpse of one village leader allegedly beaten to death in police custody. The promised elections are still being organized and some outside academics have begun residing in the village to observe the process.

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