Wukan reforms fizzle?

Remember Wukan? At the end of last year this Chinese village was catapulted into the global limelight when villagers arose in protest against local leaders taking their land and selling it to developers for obscene profits. Many of the villagers received nothing, some were paid a mere pittance. The riots that followed were sparked by the death of one of the protest leaders, who many rioters believed was murdered by corrupt officials. The story was covered brilliantly by UK Telegraph reporter Malcolm Moore and chronicled in pictures, videos and translations over at China Geeks.

Wukan stood out as much for the spectacular images of an enraged public as it did for what to many looked like a happy ending, with higher authorities stepping in and implementing one-man-one-vote elections that ousted the corrupt local leaders. Custer at China Geeks was, at the time, very cautiously optimistic, as I was, too:

Most people seem to be happy for and/or jealous of Wukan, and many also see it as a sign of impending reforms or, for some, more sweeping changes:

Wukan is the beginning of Chinese democracy, a single spark can ignite a prairie fire.

We’ll see. As of now, I don’t believe they’re even finished counting the votes. But how things will look in a year is even less clear. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about what’s happening there right now, for me personally and, it appears, for an awful lot of Sina Weibo users, too.

Well now, nearly a year after the demonstrations began, things look far less promising. As noted in the Wall Street Journal’s China blog:

Immediately after riots broke out in Wukan, Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang interceded, which led to free elections that resulted in the village leaders being displaced by protest leaders, who then undertook to undo illegal land sales. This supposed success, fueled by Wang Yang’s involvement and attention from both traditional and social media, inspired a small number of reported village protests elsewhere in the country.

Today, those same Wukan villagers are frustrated because their original grievances have yet to be resolved. Disappointment has also reached other villages that had been encouraged by Wukan as an example of change arising from Chinese society. For example, an activist in a Zhejiang village, who had led protests against corrupt local leaders, was elected as village leader, but she found she could not work with the new party head. She then went to Wukan “on a whim,” only to be disappointed at finding reform had faltered there….

First, undoing the land sales has been complicated. It is unclear how much land can be reclaimed. Nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles was reportedly sold beginning in 1993. Some land has since been resold, in some cases more than once. Another complicating factor is the involvement not only of Wukan village officials, but higher-level officials at both township and country levels.

Wukan was looked at as a model of how the Party implemented reforms that led to fairness and social stability. It still is by many Chinese. But that’s simplistic. As the article notes, “The current system does not afford legal means of undoing corrupt land takings.” So dissatisfaction remains high in Wukan and justice has clearly not been served. While it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it was ultimately a very mixed “success” and not nearly the happy ending so many were hoping for. Instead of highlighting the government’s efforts at reform it underscores just how difficult it is to make real changes and achieve justice for the little guy. Elections are great, but they are not a panacea, especially in villages where rule of law is all but unknown.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

Did the villagers realistically think they would get their land back just by voting in a new leader? (Especially if it was disposed of years ago). Local democracy is an admirable move, but it won’t solve disputes like this. Palestinians go to vote and elected Hamas but that didn’t help them get the land taken from them. Even rule of law is no guarantee of land rights. Where I live a major supermarket chain has bought up land and plans a massive but unwanted shopping mall. Residents voted in a local council opposed to the development but it had neither the power to stop the land development nor the financial resources to maintain a legal battle against the corporation with deep pockets and friends in government.

November 21, 2012 @ 1:54 am | Comment

No disagreement. I think they believed locally elected officials sympathetic to their cause could work to get their land back.

November 21, 2012 @ 1:57 am | Comment

See?! Democracy doesn’t work!!

November 21, 2012 @ 2:38 am | Comment

Haha. No worries, I’m sure China’s meritocratic system will help the Wukan situation self-correct.

November 21, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Comment

@ Richard. Not just Malcolm Moore.
Rachel Beitarie also did some excellent real time reporting on Wukan as I noted in an old post on my site, and she did it without the financial and other support enjoyed by Malcolm Moore. Not that he didn’t do a great job.

Unfortunately, she used google plus which I don’t really understand.

November 21, 2012 @ 4:49 am | Comment

Just did another search. She appears to have been employed by an Israeli publication (hence officially accredited in Beijing), but she had a blog site earlier in the peace/pre-Wukan.

November 21, 2012 @ 4:56 am | Comment

“kicking it down the road” is a common phrase in US politics these days. It looks like the official response to Wukan can be similarly described, even if the particulars are clearly unrelated. Locals revolted, armed with a sympathetic story that resonated with Chinese villagers at large. To placate them, the higher-ups made some local concessions that sounded kinda nice at the time. They did what they had to do to limit the fallout, and get the story off of weibo. However, the fundamentals remained unchanged. So when push came to shove, the status quo largely remains. I was among the hopeful onlookers last year. But this simply reaffirms the reality of the CCP: nothing will change as long as they’re in charge. Corruption, illegal activity, and abuse of the little guy will continue like it always has. When the next “Wukan” pops up, the party will offer up the usual pablum, and then the status quo will re-exert itself once more. The real question is how long Chinese people will allow the CCP to “kick it down the road”.

November 21, 2012 @ 10:03 am | Comment

Yes, SKC, an old story. But for a moment it did look so hopeful. How naive I was.

KT, of course Malcolm Moore wasn’t the only reporter who did great coverage, but I found his stories utterly stellar, and he was my “go-to journalist” for all things Wukan, just as Custer was my go-to blogger.

November 21, 2012 @ 11:02 am | Comment

Well according to chinese historical pattern, by the time when CCP is put out of charge the common folk would have to worry about more things than land grabbing or injustice, that is until another “CCP” comes and restore the order, sadly the old problems will remain aka “different soup same medicine” style.

November 21, 2012 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

Didn’t help that “reformist” leader in Guangdong, Wang Yang, was put down a few pegs recently in the big changeover.

Party don’t play the reform game.

November 22, 2012 @ 12:21 pm | Comment

Reform? Why does China need reform?

How are the hostile forces trying to Westernize and disunite China? One common technique is to use the banner of “Reform” to change the color of China’s Socialist System.

Let me first comment on Deng Xiaoping to illustrate the importance of sometimes not “reforming”. Deng Xiaoping, in 1989, resisted great pressure from Rightists to “reform”, and we all know what he did that year. I believe what he did in 1989 takes a lot more courage and determination than any type of “reform”.

We know that in the early days of China’s economic opening up, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were the right and left hands of Deng Xiaoping. Looking back today, those two hands were not very effective, and Deng Xiaoping were dissatisfied with them. But those two were supported by many overseas rightists and domestic intellectuals. But Deng Xiaoping still fired those two people despite so much popular support they receive. This again takes extreme courage.

Then Li Peng and Jiang Zemin took over. I believe those two did a great job in implementing Deng Xiaoping’s policy, which was basically: “Both hands have to be hard, and cannot be even a little soft”. I was a rightist back then, and did not like those two people. I thought those two people were too conservative, and not “reformist” enough.

(Note how I put quotes around the word reform. Some reforms are necessary, such as tighter supervision among party cadres and tighter media controls. But to rightists, they have a different view on reform. They believe that a “reform” is anyh activity that goes against China’s Constitution. For example, China’s Constitution clearly says that government officials are elected indirectly through representatives. But rightists insist on promoting “direct elections”, trying to break the Constitution. Also, the Constitution cleary says that the Chinese Communist Party is the core leadership of the Chinese people, but the rightists insist that this is a dictatorship and not democracy. Rightists often sing praises of the importance of Constitutions, so why do they not respect China’s Constitution?)

Anyway, then came the collapse of the USSR. I was very naive back then, and I thought that: “This is such good news for the people of USSR. They captured that opportunity. China unfortunately missed that opportunity, USSR people will start to enjoy happier and better lives”.

What happened afterwards to the USSR completely changed my viewpoints.

In the early days of the economic reform, many of China’s reforms were modelled exactly after certain aspects of West’s system. But today, we can see that the West’s capitalist system is already almost collapsing, and so now China’s future reform direction is totally unclear. Can China continue to model itself after the West’s system? I do not believe so. The West is burning Chinese stores, adding tariffs for Chinese steel and shoe imports, subsidizing agricultures. Even for HK, can HK still be an example for the mainland? I do not think so. Can Taiwan be an example for the Mainland? I do not think so.

In other words, there’s no much left that’s valuable to learn from the West’s system.

Therefore, a lot of times resisting reforms is more important than carrying out reforms and takes more courage. I was in Shenzhen a few months ago, and I saw a Deng Xiaoping quote displayed as a slogan on the street: “We will not change our fundamental path for 100 years”. Therefore, anyone who wants to challenge the Chinese Constitution, to change the leadership position of the Chinese Communist Party, to change the dominance of state-owned enterprises, I think they should wait for another 100 years.

Rightists always yell “If China does not reform this and that, it’ll……”. Well, they’ve been yelling for decades, and China is still doing pretty well, but many of those Rightists have died out.

November 25, 2012 @ 3:28 am | Comment

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November 26, 2012 @ 3:07 am | Pingback

but many of those Rightists have died out.

Or made a lot of money while the lefties were yelling at the internet.

November 26, 2012 @ 4:33 am | Comment

A white horse is not horse. It is a horse, but not horse.

Wukan is a reform. It is not the be all and end all. “Amplify what works, and discard what does not.” Western style democracy does not work for China, as Wukan again demonstrates. Voting does not solve problems. Powerful and wise elites do.

Wukan is a solvable problem. All crows are black, and all elites are corrupt. That is true around the globe. No polity has been able to totally get rid of corruption. But no Chinese expect a total elimination. What the folks ask for is just that their own lives continue to improve, year after year.

Land use is definitely a source of conflict in China. Wukan is just another case of Ding Zi Hu, albeit on a bigger scale. Yet it is wide ranging problems like this that demands innovation and trial and error. One way is to make sure that everyone involved gets to participate in the gains. Once the fairness issue is addressed, folks will be happy.

1. Set aside 5% of all sale-to-consumer to be distributed to the original residents.

2. Register the residents with biometrics, and pay into their accounts directly to avoid Tan Guan taking a cut.

Try it with a Wukan, then 10 Wukans, then 1,000. Amplify what works, and discard what does not.

November 26, 2012 @ 6:08 am | Comment

“Western style democracy does not work for China, as Wukan again demonstrates. Voting does not solve problems. Powerful and wise elites do.”

Ummmm, this was neither a western style domocracy nor a benevolent autocracy. This was only corruption writ large.

November 26, 2012 @ 6:39 am | Comment

” Voting does not solve problems. Powerful and wise elites do….and all elites are corrupt.”
—sometimes I don’t think CCP apologists truly realize the humour in the stuff they say. More free entertainment for the rest of us.

As for the dunce clock, it’s like ‘what problem, I don’t see no problem, who needs reform?’. The mental detachment from reality is really quite a case study. The clock-ster belongs in a science lab.

November 26, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Comment

As S.K. Cheung laughs, the Chinese people are also laughing – all the way to the bank. 4th Qtr. economic growth is going back up to 8.4%.

November 26, 2012 @ 1:16 pm | Comment

They’d be laughing even more with growth (courtesy of capitalism), AND being rid of the CCP – media controls, quashed freedoms, needless secrecy, balls-out corruption, and the whole nine yards.

November 26, 2012 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

@ZBJ and SKC

Both the growth of China and her associated ills are becoming less and less the responsibility of the Party and more and more the responsibility of the Chinese people.

Media controls, quashed freedoms, and secrecy are the outgrowth now of powerful protectionist and institutional forces involving the media and security industries. On the flip side, any additional real economic growth that occurs will not happen due to heavy state backed investment but rather genuine entrepreneurship and technological research.

November 26, 2012 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

@t-co:

“Both the growth of China and her associated ills are becoming less and less the responsibility of the Party and more and more the responsibility of the Chinese people.”

That might even be true. But that does not detract from the fact that there are MANY things – great things no less – that simply cannot be accomplished if left to free market competition. Government must step in to make it happen.

Taking Wukan as an example: most land assets in China still belong to the “people”, and are controlled by the government. To convert such assets into private ownership certainly “releases” much wealth into private hands, and thus stokes the fires of domestic consumption. But then WHAT IS FAIR? ONLY the government can make that decision.
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November 27, 2012 @ 12:55 pm | Comment

@ZBJ

“But that does not detract from the fact that there are MANY things – great things no less – that simply cannot be accomplished if left to free market competition. Government must step in to make it happen.”

True–and no doubt, it can be argued that the Party is the best institution to implement a basic level of social welfare for China in its next leg of socio-economic transitions.

But is it? One-Party privatization has always led to massive corruption, and yet privatization of state assets/land is probably the only way China can take its corporate competitiveness and organic, non-state-directed financial liquidity to the next level. And since privatization brings to light wealth that was implicit within the system, it brings closer the day of reckoning when China’s Communist Party will have to choose between retaining some residual amount of popular trust and letting its members get rich off their positions.

November 27, 2012 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

“But then WHAT IS FAIR? ONLY the government can make that decision.”
—man, this guy just never ceases to amaze.

+++++++++++++++

To T-co,
the CCP has already engendered massive corruption, and privatization has yet to begin in earnest. And “letting its members get rich off their positions” is certainly not a hypothetical byproduct of the CCP that might come to roost down the road; it’s obviously already here, and has been for quite some time.

November 27, 2012 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

@t-co:

I would have to disagree with the assertion that “One-Party privatization has always led to massive corruption, and yet privatization of state assets/land is probably the only way China can take its corporate competitiveness and organic, non-state-directed financial liquidity to the next level.”

Singapore and Hong Kong are both de facto single party jurisdictions. Both are Chinese, and neither is unacceptably corrupt – in fact much less corrupt than democratic Taiwan.

Corruption reduction and privatization are different things. Privatization need not lead to massive corruption. Hong Kong sells land on a controlled basis (“privatization” of erstwhile government assets), and gifts HK$6,000 per head to everyone. There is no corruption involved. That is just one example.

BTW, with Wukan in mind, there is no absolute truth in the assertion that the prior residents should get all the gains. The “correct” answer is probably a mix of:

(a) the national government should get all the gains, to benefit the entire citizenry;

(b) the local government should get all the gains, to benefit the local population, since there is diminution of a limited local public good;

(c) the developer, since the entity puts up risk capital; and

(d) the prior residents, since they were deprived of their established use.

Note that the prior residents never had ownership.

Complete open market is not the panacea it sounds like from the onset. Chinese businesses are still too small to compete with the well established multinational behemoths – they WILL be trampled. Before they can stand on their own feet, government involvement is definitely needed. Example could include:

(1) Criminalize contracts of adhesion that rips off IP rights from Chinese companies – no longer may foreign entities provide by contract that the Chinese companies have to fork over IP for free.

(2) Extend anti-corruption laws to provide treble damages against ALL the entities involved (3 times them nominal value), with mandatory jail terms for the CEO and CFO of the companies (including foreign companies).

(3) Facilitate the formation of IP pools, and centralize the hiring of legal resources such as contingency lawyers to enforce Chinese originated IP around the world,and disburse the gains to the creators of the IP.

These are not things that private companies can do themselves.

November 27, 2012 @ 2:22 pm | Comment

“These are not things that private companies can do themselves.”
—no, they’re not. You need laws for that, based upon a system of rule of law. And you do need government to enact laws. You just don’t necessarily need a CCP government for that. In fact, if there’s one thing the CCP seems patently incapable of (after 30, 34, or 65 years, take your pick, cuz sometimes you like to ignore the first 30, and sometimes you don’t), it’s creating any semblance of rule of law. Why would any Chinese person have faith that the CCP can suddenly manage that feat now?

November 27, 2012 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

So let me get this straight. You’ve got a gang of thieves in your house with a supporting army and you’re going to trust them to make sure that none of their members are going to steal any of your stuff (and there’s AMPLE evidence that they’ve been raiding that sucker like a viking).

And the next logical step is that those same thieves who got FILTHY rich (e.g. Uncle Wen, Bo Xi Lai, etc. etc.) by raiding your home are going to make an independent rule of law that can make them accountable for their thievery.

And then OF COURSE they’re going to break up the SOE monolith cash cows (that they run and get richer off) that swallow up and slow down the Chinese economy.

Makes perfect sense.

But I guess that’s why anyone with money is in a western country. They can’t vote for their leaders but they can vote with their feet.

November 27, 2012 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

“They can’t vote for their leaders but they can vote with their feet.”
—ain’t that the truth, curl. It’s almost like the Middle-East-dictator routine. First, you funnel the money out. Then the kids/wife/wives flee the coup. Then finally the guy in government house bails. One difference though with the CCP is that there are many playing out that “dictator” routine, like Wen, Hu, and Bo (though Bo of course didn’t play it so well, and now he’s been cast in the role of sacrificial lamb).

November 28, 2012 @ 2:20 am | Comment

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