What Wukan Means

It began, in the early stages, as a secret mobilization. Then came the protests, marches of ever-larger numbers, direct confrontation, occupations, blockades, anarchy, media exposure, a case of accidental death, the involvement of higher levels of authority, negotiation … until, finally, after two years and eleven months, on the 2nd of February 2012, in Guangdong province, in the county of Lufeng, the village of Wukan at last held a democratic election.

Given the evolution of events, what took place in Wukan could be called a revolution. True, when compared to the waves of large-scale protests that broke out around the world in 2011, it may look like just a minor case of local unrest. It failed to spur a more widespread campaign. But it deserves to be seen, at least, as a micro-revolution—one that has particular significance for the politics of rural development in China today.

The conflict had its origins in Wukan’s opaque system for transferring property rights and its unfair compensation for those whose land rights had been “transferred.” Initially, the protests were an expression of the villagers’ financial interests, a quest for profit. But because the financial interests involved were collective, as opposed to individual, and because the quest began to run up against the endemic corruption of the political system, inevitably, the movement began to express itself through politics: demanding new elections became a necessary tactic for the villagers’ defense of their self-interest.

Under [what China’s leaders like to call its] “unique national conditions,” to claim one’s cause isn’t political is a crucial tactic groups fighting for their collective interests must employ to protect themselves from being labeled “anti-Party,” being accused of “subverting state power,” or otherwise running afoul of the government’s imperative to “safeguard social stability.” In China, avoiding politics is itself a form of politics.

We need to update the way we think and talk about this word, “politics.” Today we have citizens whose politics do not revolve around the Party or ideology—their demands are based either on personal interests or non-ideological community interests. Their participation in public affairs already transcends the realm of traditional party politics. In recent years, this new kind of politics has been on the rise in many spheres and manifest in countless cases of “defending civil rights,” or weiquan. If the authorities still construe such demands as attacks on the Party, they will only produce more conflicts and generate more serious opposition.

In this context, Wukan was a turning point. The Guangdong government moved beyond its habitual fixation with “maintaining stability” to recognize that the appeals of the Wukan villagers arose out of concern for their livelihoods, rather than out of some animus against the Party or China’s political system. As a result, after a rational negotiation, they allowed Wukan to hold a democratic election.

For the moment, a case of unrest had been put to rest. But that did not mean that the long-simmering issues that caused the protests in the first place had been resolved. The 2005 riots in the village of Taishi (also in Guangdong province) broke out for the same reason. Rural protests arising out of land confiscation and unfair compensation are already nothing new. Rather, they reveal the extent to which, for a long time, China’s peasants have been treated like dirt.

Prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was the promise of “land redistribution” that encouraged peasants to participate in the revolution. Once the Communists were in charge, they made good on their promise to the peasants. But over the next ten years, temporary mutual aid teams, long-term mutual aid teams, elementary cooperatives, and later advanced cooperatives took ownership of their land, completing the transition from private to collective land ownership and ushering in the era when, in the formulation of the day, “City land is state-owned, rural land is collectively owned.” The People’s Communes of 1958 were not so much manifestations of Communist utopianism as an attempt to support national industrialization by efficiently allotting land and labor resources through administrative fiat and militarization. In order to limit peasants’ social mobility and bind them to the land, that same year the government promulgated the “Household Registration Ordinance,” which set up a two-tiered system for the urban and rural populations that ensured that the industrializing cities would be able to squeeze every last drop out of the farm-bound countryside. In the three decades following the founding of the PRC, the government used price scissors—keeping the price of agricultural products extremely low—to accumulate 600 billion RMB (approximately US$95 billion at 2012 exchange rates) worth of GDP from the countryside and transfer it to industry. In the 20 years after collectivization, about half of every hour of labor in the Chinese countryside went unpaid, according to the estimates of journalist Ling Zhijun and sociologist Xu Xinxin.

In 1978, eighteen peasants in the Anhui province village of Xiaogang grew dissatisfied with the bare subsistence conditions in the People’s Communes. Under heavy pressure to survive, they took the initiative to sign a contract pledging each household to take responsibility for its own agricultural production. Their audacious risk-taking quickly bore fruit, and large numbers of other farmers followed their example until soon, it gained the approval of the central government. So began the next era of rural reform. Once again, land (which in the Chinese context is really “land use”) was returned to the peasants. The Chinese peasantry, seizing the moment to advance their interests, had changed the system from below.

But as the “household responsibility system” spread through the country’s inland rural areas, the first wave of urbanization was also beginning along China’s southern coast. And soon, the new cities’ appetite for rural land began to eclipse enthusiasm for a revived rural economy based on the household agricultural output.

The establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone transformed a remote fishing village into a metropolis. At the beginning, what was known as the “three supplies for processing and one compensation” system—in which foreigners provided supplies, investment capital, and management—attracted investment that transformed the vast rural areas of the Pearl River Delta into an enormous workshop. In 1992, after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, Shenzhen’s real estate market took off. The effects radiated to inland China and spurred the country’s second great wave of urbanization.

As this wave advanced, the land available for cities to develop grew increasingly scarce and rural land was suddenly a coveted resource. The government used administrative measures to amass collectively-owned rural land on the cheap and then sell it to property developers. Expropriation of land became a major source of government revenue and indeed the most significant contributor to the country’s GDP. According to a 2011 article by Huang Xiaohu in the Study Times, “the revenue from land expropriation was 129.6 billion RMB (US$20 billion) in 2001, and soon increased to 1.6 trillion RMB (US$254 billion) in 2009. In 2010, the number leapt to 2.7 trillion RMB (US$429 billion).” “Of the enormous sums the central government collected this way, only 20-30% were disbursed to township and village governments and then only 5-10% of that returned to the peasants as direct compensation for the loss of their land,” wrote Wang Ping in 2005. “During the past two decades,” observed rural development researcher Yu Jianrong, “more than 100 million mu of rural land (or roughly 16 million acres) was requisitioned and the compensation to its former occupants fell 2 trillion RMB (US$318 billion) short of its market value. ... Since 1978, at least 50-60 million peasants have lost their land entirely.” “During the fifty years from 1952 to 2002, the revenue generated from the land that peasants gave away for free totaled 5.1535 trillion RMB (US$819 billion),” according to Dang Guoying. But after the implementation of the Law of Land Administration in 1986, “China’s total payments in compensation for requisitioned land totaled less than 100 billion RMB (US$16 billion).”

During the era of urbanization, peasants donated their labor as well as their land. The financial ruin of Chinese agriculture has meant that many peasants have no choice but to move to cities to look for work. But because of the still-inescapable household registration system, they are unable to benefit from public services accorded their urban counterparts. The group of people who make up the majority of China’s population, who have made unceasing sacrifices through the eras of revolution, industrialization, and urbanization, are nevertheless prevented from claiming their fair share of their country’s success.

This is the historical context of the events in Wukan. Its residents had already been exploited by the very design and policy orientation of China’s political system; now the system’s corruption had made matters even worse. After their rights had been violated so many times, the peasants had no choice but to resort to protest and to stand for justice and to secure their rights and interests by electing a new village committee.

The ruling party has to face the fact that its “stability preservation” strategies have short-term impact. What the country’s leaders ought to do is try to launch political reforms, adjusting system and policy, establishing effective organs for public supervision of the political process eradicating the corruption. For if the Taishi protest sounded an alarm, then Wukan was its even more resounding echo.

The Wukan protest demonstrated both the rationality of rural people and their ability to organize effectively. This is a sign of progress. Travel to cities has expanded the extent to which many peasants are aware of their rights, and the Internet and social media have given them enhanced ability to communicate and mobilize. More importantly, the increased economic activity and social mobility peasants have experienced in recent years have actually strengthened traditional village institutions centered on family lineages. Since Reform and Opening, ancestor worship and maintenance of ancestral halls—which had been devastated during the Cultural Revolution—have enjoyed a revival. This is particularly pronounced in Guangdong. The old patriarchal social structure in rural areas is gradually turning into the social foundation for rural self-governance.

The linchpin of the Wukan protests was a group of young people who had left the village to do business or work as migrant laborers. They kept in touch over the Chinese instant-message service QQ and through it formed a group they called the Wukan Ardent Youth Corps. Corps members discussed the unfairness of Wukan land transfers. They bemoaned the fact that its village committee hadn’t held an election in forty-one years. They railed against the lack of openness in government affairs and public finance. And they planned to petition higher authorities to address their grievances.

When the conflicts in Wukan escalated, one by one the group’s members returned home, where they became a core of strength for the protests. They registered social media accounts to provide up-to-the-minute news of what was happening in Wukan. They made videos and disseminated them widely online. They talked to local and international journalists. When the village was blockaded, they even spontaneously organized a team of security guards to maintain order. These returnees were deeply connected to their native soil, but the knowledge and skills they had gained while away from home were what gave the Wukan protests coordination and power. They made Wukan a model for organizing social movements at the village level.

The man elected village head was the respected and trusted protest leader Lin Zuluan. Lin, a 65-year-old Communist Party member and former soldier, had served as a cadre in Wukan and the nearby township of Donghai before leaving officialdom to go into business. In many ways he resembled a member of the traditional rural gentry. His party membership and years as an official ensured that he knew his way around China’s political system. Although he’d returned home to retire, he still maintained a kind of emotional connection to the regime. His years in business had given him a web of social connections that kept his worldview from getting stale. These are the qualities that tend to confer authority and build popular support in today’s Chinese countryside, and they allowed Lin to keep the protesters rational and their protests orderly. Lin’s participation demonstrated the enormous role that gentry-like figures can play in ensuring the success of attempts at rural self-governance.

By September 21, 2011, Wukan was in a state of anarchy. The village party secretary had fled, and some 5000 people were engaged in direct confrontation with the county government in Lufeng. It was Lin Zuluan who proposed and organized a village election. First, each of the forty-seven lineages in the village (each of which has its own surname) chose between one and five representatives. Next, from out of this initial group of 117 “village representatives,” thirty-eight nominees for a temporary village council were selected. Then the 117 voted to select thirteen from among the thirty-eight, who would now serve a temporary village council that could respond to Wukan’s most pressing immediate needs. That this kind of multi-centered, multi-phased system of representation could grow spontaneously out of the traditional local lineage system demonstrates the power that lineage still holds to shape local society.

When, at long last, the conflict between Wukan’s villagers and government reached an accommodation, the villagers were able to hold a legal and binding election to choose a new village government. Their conduct ought to spell the demise of the belief that Chinese peasants are incapable of participating in democratic politics. This year, discussions of village self-governance have been especially heated and the center of debate has been whether village self-governance could become the basis for political reform at the national level. From the perspective of population, if the 80% of China’s population that is classified as rural can successfully govern itself that would make for quite a sturdy foundation for social stability across the country. Beginning political reform in the countryside has a very long history in China.

China’s system of prefectures and counties, which allowed the arm of the central state to reach all the way to the village level, began in the Qin Dynasty (221-208B.C.) During Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the scholar-statesman Wang Anshi put into practice the baojia system, a community-based form of law enforcement and civil control. Under this system, imperial power reached only to the county level. The substance of rural self-governance arose out of a mutually beneficial relationship between the central state and the local gentry. Under the baojia, responsibility for tax collection and law and order at the village level was left to local gentry and lineages. This reduced costs for the central government and at the same time allowed the local lineages to protect their own interests. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty changed the tax code so that rural households would be taxed by the size of their land-holdings rather than by the number of people in their family. This lowered the tax burden on the poorest Chinese farmers and gave them a new measure of freedom. The termination of the imperial civil service examination system in 1905 was a watershed moment in the history of China's countryside. It closed off the channel through which people in rural villages could ascend to positions of power in the imperial central government. Society had to reshuffle the cards. Peasants would have to find another way to the center of history.

During the Republican Era (1912-1949) that followed the abdication of the Qing emperor, both the Nationalist Party (KMT) and Communist Party (CCP) realized that the situation of China’s peasantry was its most pressing issue and a source of political power worth fighting over. The CCP mobilized peasants to practice class struggle, while the KMT launched a “Rural Reconstruction Movement,” in part to counter the influence of the Communists, with more than 1200 pilot projects throughout the country, including Huang Peiyan’s Kuanshan project in Jiangsu, Liang Sumin’s Zouping project in Shandong, and James Y.C. Yen’s Dingxian project in Hebei.

If you look back at the past hundred years of interventions in the Chinese countryside, it’s impossible to deny that the CCP is unsurpassed in this regard. It understood best what peasants wanted, it was the best at mobilizing them, and it was, thus, the most successful at using and controlling them. This was the most important reason for its victory over the KMT.

Prior to their victory, the Communists had already dealt serious blows to the power of clans and gentry families in the countryside. Once in power, they used land reform, collectivization, and the establishment of the People’s Communes to thoroughly destroy what remained of China’s traditional rural social structure, and they replaced it with their own apparatus of total political control, penetrating all the way down to the village level.

But with the beginning of Reform and Opening (in 1978) and the first wave of urbanization that followed it, this level of control became problematic. Excessive urbanization, the government’s over-reliance on land requisition, official corruption, and the lack of transparency in the political process led to increasing numbers of rural protests. You could say that Wukan just one such protest, but the nature of its resolution demonstrates that the countryside possesses the resources to govern itself. History demands that for China to progress, top down control in the countryside ought to be replaced with direct democracy at the village level.

It is also time for a new definition of “revolution.” Revolution doesn’t need to mean seizing power. It doesn’t need to mean one political party replacing another. It doesn’t need to mean violence. Revolution can mean the melting away of conflict, a common search for a road through our problems. It can mean sharing, rather than seizing. It can bring smiles instead of terror. It can be a storm of ideas rather than a call to arms. Revolution doesn’t need to mean the burying of a system; it can mean the system’s renewal. Revolution doesn’t need to mean chaos; it can also mean order. Wukan has already set the example. It is time for history to follow.

translated by Sun Yunfan


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Law, Politics, Rural Life
Land Rights, Wukan