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    Greater China
     Jan 7, 2012

Guangdong boss bets on velvet glove
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - If, as the African proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child, then can the now iconic village of Wukan in China's southern Guangdong province raise a nation on principles of free speech, transparent governance and democracy?

That is the hope - for the Wukan villagers whose protests against the wholesale theft of their land by corrupt local officials made international headlines over the holiday season and for the growing mass of Chinese netizens who have taken up their cause in cyberspace.

Some overly exuberant analysts see a possible Chinese Spring in the making, mirroring the political upheaval that has rocked the Arab world over the past year. But don't count on it.

The Wukan uprising, inspirational as it may have been, has now

been quieted by the savvy Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief in Guangdong, Wang Yang, who is exploiting the crisis to advance his own political ambition to secure a seat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee during the leadership shuffle later this year at the 18th party congress.

For years, top Guangdong officials ignored complaints about land grabs in Wukan - a coastal fishing village of about 13,000 residents located 120 kilometers east of Hong Kong - but this time the 56-year-old Wang saw an opportunity to burnish his reputation as a peacemaker who listens and responds to the people he serves (or rules).

By approving an investigation into illegal land sales in the village and sacking the two local officials believed to have sanctioned and profited from these sales, Wang has made a deft political move that can only help him in his rivalry with another rising star in the party, Bo Xilai, 62, the party secretary in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing.

In contrast to Wang, Bo, who also aspires to win a coveted place on the standing committee, is noted for his zeal for the revolutionary rhetoric of Mao Zedong and for his hard-line approach to dissent and law enforcement.

Come this autumn, when the 18th party congress convenes in Beijing to choose a fifth generation of Chinese leaders, we will see whether Bo's hard line or Wang's softer style proves more popular. The congress is widely expected to name current Vice President Xi Jinping as President Hu Jintao's successor, while Vice Premier Li Keqiang will most likely take over from Premier Wen Jiabao.

But the battle for seats on the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee is still on, with both Wang and Bo jockeying for a place around a table reserved for China's most powerful men. It would be ironic if the near-revolution staged against party leaders in a village in his province were to help Wang - whose loyalty is first and foremost to the one-party rule that is the foundation of his power - outpoint his Chongqing rival to enter the rarefied realm of the standing committee.

Bo has his revival of Mao's revolutionary spirit and his ruthless crackdown on crime and corruption to boast about - even if lawyers and human-rights activists who dared to defend the accused in that crackdown were also targeted.

Wang's bragging rights come from presiding over China's most prosperous province - and now also from successfully defusing the potentially destabilizing crisis in Wukan. As land grabs and corrupt local officials have become an unfortunate, nationwide staple of Chinese capitalism, current politburo members undoubtedly took note of Wang's triumph of appeasement in Wukan, where villagers whose rioting had chased local officials out of town just a few weeks ago now offer praise and thanks to provincial leaders for their intervention.

A hardline response would only have exacerbated the long-boiling frustration and the violence that eventually broke out in Wukan. Wang's softer line has set a new and refreshingly liberal-minded tone in Guangdong, although it remains to be seen whether the injustices inflicted on Wukan will be fully rectified.

That change in tone has been a long time coming - for Wukan, for Guangdong and for China. The villagers' complaints and petitions about illegal land seizures and corrupt local officials go back at least 20 years. Indeed, the two sacked officials - Xue Chang, the party secretary for the city of Lufeng, in which Wukan is located, and village chief Chen Shunyi - had both held their posts for 40 years.

Xue and Chen are now under investigation for corruption, but it took four decades to bring them down. And, surely, they were not acting alone. The entire local political structure is rotten - in Wukan and elsewhere - and requires major house-cleaning and reform.

As villagers tell the story, local officials started selling off their collectively owned land to developers after Xue launched the Wukan Port Development Company in the early 1990s and appointed himself the company's general manager. Villagers say the company paid each of them a mere 550 yuan (US$87) for their land, which was then used to build roads and housing estates bringing huge profits.

Finally, last September, the people of Wukan had had enough. Following yet another illegal sell-off, thousands of residents took to the streets in protest, storming a police station, an industrial park and the local Communist Party offices in Lufeng. To avoid the wrath of the mob, party officials were forced to flee the scene.

Rattled authorities later agreed to enter into negotiations with 13 representatives democratically elected by villagers, but before those talks could bear fruit, several of the representatives were arrested. One them, 42-year-old Xue Jinbo, died last month in police custody.

Police said Xue died of a sudden heart attack after confessing to damaging property and disrupting public services in Wukan, but his family and friends insisted he was a victim of police brutality.

When police refused to release Xue's body for the funeral service planned by his family, villagers once again threatened to riot. That's when, with everyone expecting another iron-fisted crackdown, Wang's deputy, Zhu Mingguo, stepped in with a peace offering.

Zhu's December 21 meeting with village representatives in Lufeng resulted in the dismissal of the two long-standing officials, the release of Xue's body for a second autopsy, an investigation into the land seizures and a promise to make public all of the village's financial records.

The protests stopped immediately as village elders showered praise on provincial authorities. Finally, somebody had listened to them.

Since the Wukan breakthrough, Wang has been busy making political capital out of his success. For example, addressing a meeting of the Guangdong party congress this week, Wang promised to use the "Wukan approach" to clean up village politics throughout the province.

"Zhu Mingguo leading a delegation into Wukan village was not only meant to solve problems in the village," Wang was reported as saying, "but also to set a reference standard to reform village governance across Guangdong."

It is a pledge that other party leaders may be wise to heed. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 50 million farmers had their land seized last year, and the number is increasing at a rate of three million farmers per year.

That's a lot of potential Wukans on the horizon for China.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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