By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
The popular Chinese novelist and blogger Han Han was asked in an interview last week whether anything inspired him about China’s future. He replied by referring to Wukan, the southern fishing village that made global headlines last year by rebelling against local Communist Party officials and replacing them with leaders of the village’s own choosing. “In Wukan’s case, I see the light on the road to China’s future democracy,” he said, expressing hope for more elections in Chinese communities.
Han Han’s idealism is admirable, but his expectations for Wukan are probably too high. While the Wukan rebellion was seen by some as an encouraging symbol of protest, it may ultimately be remembered as a failure.
To recap: Last September, villagers in Wukan, in southeastern Guangdong Province, staged a series of protests after village leaders sold a large area of the village-owned land to a real estate developer without paying compensation to residents. In December, after one activist died in police custody, the residents expelled the leaders and barricaded the village. The villagers prevailed when the villagers’ right to protest was affirmed by a high-ranking provincial Communist Party official.
An election in early January elevated a leader of the protests to the post of village Party Secretary, and in early March a new village council was elected. As part of their negotiations with provincial officials, the villagers obtained an agreement that the land transaction would be suspended and investigated.
At the time, it seemed Wukan might catalyze a change in the way China handles rural land takings, an issue that provoked outrage and protests for years.
According to a recent study by Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, disputes like Wukan’s account for two-thirds of all “mass incidents” in the countryside.There have been forcible land takings of almost 7 million hectares since 1990, Yu found, and losses by farmers of over $300 billion in rights and benefits. Another study, cited by The Diplomat, calculates that four million rural Chinese have their land appropriated every year, and that commercial land developers who purchase the land from local governments pay over 400% more than the rural residents receive in compensation.
Protests over land grabs have continued in the wake of Wukan. In February, several hundred villagers in Zhejiang province protested uncompensated land seizures for a month, leading to three arrests. Earlier this month, rural residents in south-western Yunnan province were arrested after protesting land grabs that provoked the suicide by a farmer whose land had been taken. It’s not clear what, if any, effect Wukan has had on the outcome of those conflicts.
Meanwhile, party officials in Guangdong continue to address the causes and consequences of the Wukan events.
The state-run China Daily reported this week that the local Party Commission for Discipline Inspection placed eight out of nine members of the previous party and village committees of Wukan under shanggui, (literally “double regulation”) a form of detention imposed on Party members suspected of corruption. The former party chief and the former head of the village committee have been expelled from the party for involvement in illegal land sales and have been ordered to hand over 189,200 yuan ($30,031) and 86,000 yuan in illegally obtained funds, respectively. They are likely to be prosecuted as well.
Eighteen other former officials have also received unspecified punishments for “illegal transfers of land use rights, embezzling collective properties, accepting bribes and rigging village elections.” So far, more than a million yuan in illegal gains has been confiscated from the officials, according to state media.
But villagers reportedly consider the punishment too lenient in view of the amount of the allegedly misappropriated land. “It is unimaginably little money,” the deputy director of the newly elected village committee recently told the Financial Times, while the daughter of the activist whose death while in police custody last December fueled the uprising described the punishment “too light,” saying it was “almost an invitation to more corruption.” As for the real estate deal that sparked the uprising, it’s still not clear whether the land that was illegally transferred will be handed back.
Although some have declared Wukan a model in the fight over illegal land transactions, its future significance remains undecided. In Beijing, initiation of new policies is presumably hindered by the current preoccupation with the forthcoming leadership transition and the need to demonstrate support for the new leaders. But even under normal circumstances, the central government has proven to have little power to stamp out local government illegality. At The Diplomat reminds readers in its coverage of Wukan, the Communist Party has repeatedly said it will act against illegal land takings, initiating regulations that forbid illegal land use and requiring compensation for farmers based on the market value of their land. Critically, however, these measures have been fiercely opposed by local governments.
That means we are likely to see more conflicts of the kind that occurred in Wukan, but little or no resolution of the fundamental abuse of power that spurs them.