“The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent”

Willy Lam has a new article up looking at Wukan– it’s a good summary of what the ‘wukan model’ really means:

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?

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; Sina.com, December 30, 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).

At least in theory, there are enough statutes 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.”

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Filed under Communist Party, Guangzhou Model, protests

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