Saturday, April 7, 2012

Democracy comes to China via Wukan

It has been an interesting few months in Chinese politics.

On top of the imminent national-level leadership transition and the removal of Politburo member Bo Xilai in Chongqing, the tension between economic development and human rights in Guangdong province has played out in a fascinating way.

The small fishing village of Wukan came together to elect a new village committee on 3 March. This election followed six months of protests over unsatisfactorily low compensation for land evictions — a common complaint across China. The protests escalated after the arrests of several participants and the death in custody of protest leader Xue Jinbo. Protests and violent confrontations have become commonplace in China; the Chinese Academy of Governance estimates that the number of protests doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000 reported ‘mass incidents’.

One of the main causes of such unrest is the absence of effective dispute resolution mechanisms. A common theme in these incidents is that the government often has a vested economic interest in the situation, and the judicial system is unable to play the role of impartial referee. As a consequence, the police are called in to deal with the protesters.

A key factor that has distinguished Wukan from other protests across China is that instead of responding with violent suppression, provincial authorities in Guangdong allowed an election to replace the entire village committee with independently elected representatives. The election was supervised by a local committee and monitored by external observers, who deemed it credible. This was made possible in large part by the direct intervention of an influential provincial political figure, Wang Yang, Guangdong’s party secretary. Wang is regarded as among China’s more liberal senior political figures. Notably, he is also competing this year for a position on the Politburo Standing Committee, the most senior level of China’s power structure.

If widespread change is to occur, it needs to be mandated at the top, and there is a real possibility that Wang’s ascension to the Standing Committee could lead to more political reform. Interestingly, senior Communist Party figures seem to support Wang’s actions. During a visit to Shuili village in Guangzhou on 4 February, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao emphasised the importance of protecting farmers’ rights, and expressed his support for direct village elections. He also noted in his much publicised ‘farewell address’ on 14 March the importance of social justice, particularly relating to judicial injustice and income disparity. And the People’s Daily newspaper, generally regarded as the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, praised Wang’s actions and his moral authority.

The drive for change also needs continued bottom-up support. China’s blogging community has been ablaze with commentary about Wukan, most of it positive and hopeful. One user of blogging site Sina Weibo asserted that ‘this is the start of something new’, while in the popular discussion forum Maoyan Kanren a user drew upon one of Mao’s revolutionary slogans, writing: ‘if you want freedom and democracy, you have to fight for it yourself — a single spark can start a prairie fire’. Drawing inspiration from Wukan, similar calls for elections have been made in Zhejiang and other provinces in the south.

What has happened in Wukan, and across China, relates to a fundamental tension present across the country: a desire for a say in how things are run, for a relaxing of controls that govern people’s lives and for ‘justice’. Watching how this tension evolves over the coming years, and how it is handled by China’s local, provincial and national authorities, will provide useful clues on the long-term trajectory of Chinese political reform.
By Sam Byfield who works in the international development sector.East Asia Forum

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