No news from Wukan: protests are far from an isolated anomaly

The riots that erupted in the southern Chinese village in December, following the death in custody of a peaceful protester, are representative of a wider trend – and not the unique uprising the story is being sold as
Evelyn Chan
12 January 2012

After the week-long stand-off between riot police and the villagers of Wukan in December came to a halt, a number of articles in the foreign press attempted to glean the political implications of the protests.

The headline of a New York Times article suggested the revolt Could Be a Harbinger for ChinaIn Foreign Policy magazine, Rachel Beitaire asked if the spirit of Wukan can last. And Russell Leigh Moses of the Wall Street Journal intimates a split between reformers and conservatives among Guangdong’s Party elites. Underlying these articles is a question about whether Wukan represents a potential for liberal reforms. 

The villagers’ capacity to organise collectively and with such defiance, and the provincial government’s public support for the villagers, certainly deserve wide media attention. But this is far from any liberal turn of events, as it is unlikely that future incidences of unrest would elicit the same government response. Moreover, the political significance of the events in Wukan is not their uniqueness, but in fact how common they are in China.

The western media are too easily tying each and every mass incident to the question of the country’s democratic reform. Instead we should have a new discourse that captures how ordinary resistance has become in modern-day China. The interesting question is not whether such protests can lead to reform, but rather: How it is that so many can occur without undermining the Party’s rule?     

Protests began in September, before escalating in November when up to 4,000 residents of the fishing village in Guangdong demonstrated against the local election results and unfair compensation to villagers from a private land deal. While officials pocketed about 700 million renminbi from the sale of about 80% of Wukan’s collectively-owned land, farmers only received 550 renminbi each.

After local party officials fled the village, the People’s Armed Police formed a blockade, which prevented the entry of foreign and domestic media. Residents were further emboldened after Xue Jinbo, one of the villagers chosen to help negotiate with officials, was reported to have been killed while under police detention. Angered by police authorities’ claim that Xue died of cardiac arrest, justice for Xue and his family became a key demand as they insisted officials return his body. The stand-off only came to an end when provincial officials, including the Deputy to the Governor of Guangdong, Zhu Mingguo, met with protesters and sided with the villagers.

The Wukan demonstrations do mark a departure from previous mass incidents in that protests are usually broken up by police and organisers arrested. One would assume that the gestures by the provincial party official to intervene in the negotiations, outrightly condemn local officials and publicly recognise the growing power of villagers, are an admission of cracks within China’s one-party system. Moreover, recent news that the provincial government would overturn the election results symbolises a major turn in the development of grassroots elections, which are not uncommonly marred by fraud and intimidation.

But while the world was focused on the Party’s softline approach in Wukan, in neighbouring Haimen – a town also located in Guangdong – it was business as usual as protestors were tear-gassed. In December authorities also sentenced dissident activists Chen Xi and Chen Wei to 9 and 10 years of imprisonment respectively. And just as 2011 was celebrated as the year of Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter where netizens exchange more critical views and expose stories that mainstream are too afraid to pick up, the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong government all issued laws forcing users to register their real names in an effort to reassert Party control over the flow of media information.  

Events in Wukan may just have been an aberration for the Party. The death of Xue Jinbo was certainly integral to the development of events. No longer rooted in a parochial concern of land compensation for one small village, Xue’s death brought a universal human element to the story. As Malcom Moore reports, Xue was well-liked by villagers and cautioned protestors to take a more conciliatory tone. The death and torture of a moderate voice therefore engendered a deep sense of injustice. It became politically difficult for the authorities to use force.

Mass incidents in China have become ubiquitous – from strikes by city taxi drivers and migrant workers to protests by farmers over corrupt land deals and environmental pollution. In addition to such collective acts of resistance, to speak out against corruption and inequality is now not uncommon. The internet, moreover,  is not the only forum where there is a more critical discussion, Chinese editorials and blogs often use 讽刺 (feng ci - satire) to mask any overt censuring of government.

State-society relations are not on the brink of a revolution, but they are marked by an increasing plurality. It is by framing these acts of resistance as a normal part of Chinese politics that we can understand the resilience of the Party’s rule and the complexity of authoritarian systems.

Critical discourse and outward forms of discontent are allowed to exist; and far from bringing down the one-party system (yet), they are at this point nascent foundations of public opinion. They mark an increasingly diverse, engaged and open public and perhaps the closest thing to demos in a China without democracy.

While future incidents of local unrest are not likely to usher in further reforms or change the way authorities respond to protests, which is often with force, they tell us a great deal about public opinion, and this is in it itself valuable – although less saleable in the mainstream media.

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