A senior Communist Party offical is due to start negotiations with leaders from the besieged village of Wukan. The talks will be “the highest-level acknowledgment yet of what has rapidly become the most serious case of social unrest in China this year,” reports suggest. “For a top province official to go to the village underlines concerns among authorities that unrest could spread in the province.”
Violent unrest today spread to another town in the southern province of Guangdong.
A 15-year-old boy was reportedly killed and over 100 others badly injured when riot police attacked demonstrators who occupied government buildings in Haimen, a town 75 miles from Wukan. Aggrieved citizens took to the streets (above) to demand the removal of a highly pollutant power-plant, according to China Digital Times.
“Despite attempts to censor the web and a virtual black-out in China’s state-run media,” AFP reports, “weibos — Chinese microblogs similar to Twitter — have buzzed with news of the Haimen and Wukan protests.”
As the violence erupted in Haimen, the authorities pledged today to compensate victims of illegal land grabs in Wukan where villagers expelled local officials complicit in corrupt land grabs and the killing of a local resident in police custody.
The current unrest is prompting debate and division within the upper echelons of the ruling Communist Party, analysts suggest, as the regime prepare for next year’s leadership transition.
“When we look back, the defining feature of Hu Jintao’s era will be stability preservation,” said Cui Weiping, a Beijing-based dissident. “Stability preservation is the party’s defensive response to a society that is growing more fluid and assertive.”
“But the system can’t keep up with social change and public demands. That’s why they’re so anxious despite all the security spending,” she said.
The regime’s annual expenditure on domestic security now exceeds its national defense budget, according to official figures.
“China has always been a heavily controlled place, but what’s new is the scale of it, the way in which the government has pushed this as an alternative to the emergence of a real civil society,” said Borge Bakken, an analyst at the University of Hong Kong.
In 2007, China experienced over 80,000 “mass incidents”, up 60,000 the previous year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Is there a risk of disruption? Yes, absolutely. Is this a place just waiting to explode? No,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“The chances of long-term, systemic instability are very, very small. The chances of some major disruption — like 1989, but on a much larger scale — are considerably greater, but still the odds are they can avoid it,” he said.
But while recent outbreaks of worker militancy could be resolved through labor-management bargaining, rural villagers’ grievances over illegal land seizures can only be settled by holding local party officials to account and reforming the ruling party – a step the authorities can’t afford to take.
“You don’t open the box. There is too much dirt in it. That is the political reality,” says Han Dongfang, who heads the Hong-Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
It is also raising questions about the sustainability of the regime’s performance-based legitimacy, based on a de facto social compact in which citizens abstain from politics in exchange for material prosperity.
“The party-state has become so reliant on enforcing a kind of ‘rigid’ stability that involves buying off anyone who can be bought off with economic goods, and crushing those who can’t,” Kelley Currie, a reform specialist at the Project 2049 Institute, told The Diplomat.
“Increasingly, however, the costs of buying people off are getting out of reach of local municipalities and they are finding that no matter how many police they have, it’s not enough when the whole town decides to stand up against the authorities or when the wholly inappropriate, unnecessary abuse of some citizen gets broadcast via social media.”
The Wukan affair is symptomatic of a more profound challenge for the Communist regime, writes analyst Jacqueline Deal:
Even more troubling for the central government, the grievances of Wukan-ites are representative of a broader problem in China. CCP members readily confess that corruption is rampant. According to the former China bureau chief of the Financial Times, a local official who pays 300,000 yuan for a position can expect to pull in five million within a couple years of occupying his or her post. Most of this will be outside the salary attached to the position, make no mistake. Bribes, kickbacks, and the seizure of land for real estate development deals are part of a predatory system whose victims are ordinary Chinese people.
These issues are at the forefront of internal party debates on future economic and social policy in the run-up to next year’s leadership transition. A rivalry between spokesmen for different approaches has been much reported. The populist, Mao-invoking leader of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who launched a very public anti-corruption campaign, is said to be vying with Wang Yang, the leader of Guangdong province where Wukan is located, for a seat on the Politburo standing committee.
“Instead of the usual murky guessing game of Chinese politics, Wukan has had the clarity of a moral play,” the FT’s Rahul Jacob notes:
Grandmothers and children along with thousands of other villagers have demonstrated daily for justice against corrupt party officials and for the return of Xue’s body so his funeral can go ahead.
The Communist party leadership, often lauded for the speed with which it builds airports and highways, has had no coherent response. Worse, the local government last week trotted out the four detained leaders of the protests to implausibly recant on video while police tried to starve the village into submission.
The ruling party’s response to the Wukan affair will be a key indicator of the relative strength of inner party reformers like Wang and neo-Maoist conservatives like Bo Xilai:
The question now is whether Mr Wang will break his silence. If he does, and finds a way to prove himself a genuine reformer, then his debate with Bo Xilai could find new life. If he doesn’t, his silence will suggest what many have long suspected: that the Chinese Communist party’s factions act as one when its authority is questioned.
Bo Xilai recently commissioned the world’s biggest police surveillance system in Chongqing, the model city for his neo-Maoist revival. But the regime’s obsession with stability and security is not a sustainable strategy for containing change, says the dissident Cui Weiping.
“I don’t know how or when the era of stability preservation will come to an end, but when it does, there will surely be major changes,” she says.“You can’t manage a society that refuses to be managed.”
China Labour Bulletin and China Digital Times are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.