China's Wukan Protests May Look Like 'Occupy,' But They're Winning by Keeping it Local
In September of last year, one of tens of thousands of annual “mass incidents” in China took place in a fishing village named Wukan. Several hundred local citizens marched to the county government seat, protesting what is now a disappointingly familiar story in towns and cities all across the country: illegal land seizures by local officials, who evict residents and sell the land to developers or corporations, pocketing a percentage. However, with greater awareness of their property rights, Chinese citizens have grown increasingly active in the past decade, fighting back against local corruption—with mixed results. Wukan was another example of this ongoing stratification of rich and poor in China, but, in December, what started as a local protest mushroomed into an international event.
After a village negotiating team was kidnapped and one of the village heads died suspiciously while under police custody, thousands of citizens gathered and took to the streets. Police in riot gear were sent in to quell the protest, beating dozens, but they retreated after citizens refused to back down. Local party officials fled the village as well, and police cordoned off the newly autonomous town, laying “siege.” After a tense standoff and days of exhilarating foreign press coverage, provincial-level officials stepped in and capitulated to village demands. In the year of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, Wukan represented another victory for people-powered protest.
As enticing as it is to group them together, however, the events in Wukan are no extension of OWS or the Arab Spring—but that doesn’t make it any less inspiring. According to surveys in the past decade, 9 out of 10 Chinese citizens are satisfied with the efforts of their national government while 92 percent expressed a “great deal of confidence” or “quite a lot of confidence” in their leaders in Beijing (figures that leave Chinese netizens incredulous, but which have been consistently verified). On the contrary, local officials fare worse, receiving much lower scores. Wukan was not a repudiation of the national government and its general policies and it was not the harbinger of “some nationwide rebellion that will see the national government overthrown,” but instead, anger was directed and focused on local actors and their actions. In fact, Wukan citizens begged Beijing to intervene: “Please tell the government in Beijing to help us before they kill us all,” one woman implored a Western reporter.
It would be foolish to think that all Wukan citizens were so naïve as to not recognize that their plight was caused in part by national policies—the well-meaning repeal of agricultural taxes that starved local governments and a lack of checks and balances to prevent corruption to name but two—but the consistent declarations of how their grudge was with local officials and not national ones was likely a conscious decision meant to persuade higher officials of their good intentions. By chanting “Long live the Communist Party,” they were strategically providing Beijing a way to save face by playing the savior. The provincial party secretary Wang Yang, a strong candidate for election to the national Politburo, was happy to do so.
Savvy Wukan citizens—not your typical country bumpkins, being in Guangdong province, which is not far from Hong Kong—actively courted and supported foreign media in publicizing their plight, while making sure that Beijing was aware this would not become another Tiananmen situation. They have also distanced themselves from the language of the Occupy movement, despite being associated with it by observers abroad. (Chinese media have mixed feelings about Occupy, on the one hand gleefully commenting on America’s economic and political woes while simultaneously banning mentions of “occupy” on Weibo.)
Expanding the protest outside the village was not a priority and, for the most part, Wukan did not become a national cause célèbre during the protest. During the height of the siege, a few neighboring villages smuggled food supplies into Wukan, but there weren’t exactly pizzas being ordered to the village. In fact, spreading Wukan’s cause to the rest of China would have in the end done more harm than good in Wukan itself. As Ian Johnson writes, “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.” Thus, it’s perhaps fortunate that a planned march to a neighboring village did not take place, as such an effort would be seen by the national government as much more provocative and perhaps worthy of harsher responses, not unlike how China responded by jailing dozens of activists after inklings of a supposed Jasmine Revolution were in the works. Then again, the proposed march may have served as an effective threat, as a resolution came shortly after announcements of the inter-village march.
In China, the differing motives of local governments (whose primary task is maintaining social stability) and the central government (generally more concerned with maintaining legitimacy) means that each responds to different pressures. Political scientist Yongshun Cai writes:
Given the political hierarchy, it has been commonly accepted that intervention from the central government is a crucial way of achieving successful resistance in China. … [The] ability to achieve successful resistance thus depends on whether they can effectively exploit the constraints faced by the two levels of government.
In Wukan, utilizing foreign media applied the pressure, ensuring that the protest could not simply be crushed without severe repercussions—a variation on the slogan “the whole world is watching.” But the protesters’ discrete and transparently non-revolutionary goals were meant to exploit the local-national structure, skillfully setting up the central government to have to intervene. Wukan is not unique with regards to using these tactics, but the outstanding execution is certainly noteworthy, with most of their immediate aims achieved and organizers guaranteed amnesty. So long as officials don’t renege on their promises, it’s another successful model for other Chinese villages and towns to look to when faced with similar injustice. It may not be an Arab Spring, but, then again, it’s hard to plan one when 9 out of 10 people approve of the national government—or at least say they do for now. With the central government so concerned with maintaining this legitimacy, citizens have practical paths for forcing the central government to reduce income inequality, corruption, and other contentious issues. As the effect of Wukan reverberate within government and among similarly wronged citizens, protests in China may gradually become less of a conflict and more of a negotiation between two parties who want the same thing: a better future.