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Maverick Chinese Town’s Revolutionary Dream Fades Away

The city of Wukan, in southeast China, burst into rebellion last year, only to see its high hopes fade away. Villagers in Wukan were furious with the local Communist Party leaders, who were selling off large parcels of communal land to developers and pocketing the proceeds. Finally fed up, in late 2011 the villagers joined together in a large protest, armed themselves with homemade weapons, barricaded themselves in the village, and fought back against the riot police that were sent to quell the uprising. Finally, after an eleven week standoff, Wang Yang, the Communist Party boss in Guangdong, told the villagers their demands were reasonable. He fired the Wukan Party boss and allowed protest leaders to hold elections and run the local government.

A great success, you might say.

Eighteen months later, Wukan citizens aren’t so sure they accomplished much. Town leaders can’t get back land they say was illegally confiscated and sold to developers. They suspect the developers are protected by a network of Party officials, bankers, and businessmen who profit from land sales like this, which take place across the country. The former Wukan Party boss who was fired by Wang Yang was sentenced to almost four years in jail, but he will be allowed to serve that sentence at home, a court ruled recently. “It’s like being given a check for two million yuan, but it bounces when you go to the bank,” one Wukan resident told Reuters.

The Wukan story got lots of attention on Chinese microblogs and in the international press (the official Chinese press mostly ignored the story) but only because the villagers became so angry that their protest became a rebellion. The reasons for their displeasure are common across China. Reuters reports:

An estimated 90,000 “mass incidents” – an official term for protests or social disturbances – boil up each year in China. Two-thirds of them are disputes over farmland seized for development, according to a wide-ranging survey in 17 provinces conducted in 2011 by U.S.-based Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University and Michigan State University. The survey found 4 million people on average lose their land to government expropriation each year. […]

The mean compensation local governments paid to farmers for taking land was $17,850 an acre, according to the 2011 survey of 1,791 Chinese farming households. The mean price at which it was resold, mostly to commercial developers, was $740,000 an acre. Little wonder local governments such as in Wukan were grabbing and selling as much land as they could.

The Wukan story is also notable for the central role played by social media and technology. The town’s protest leaders originally organized using microblog sites. As time went on and people from the surrounding countryside joined the demonstrations, cell phone videos swirled through the blogosphere, attracting the interest of the foreign media, which descended on Wukan. This attention was one reason Party officials acceded to the protestors’ demands (at least on the surface).

After protestors had been subdued, and their leaders allowed into the town government, subtle pressure from the authorities and entrenched interests kept the “Wukan model” from being exported to other parts of the country. Party bosses handled Wukan cleverly, skillfully, according to protocol: appease the protestors but keep a tight leash on them, and don’t let things get out of hand. But they mustn’t forget that Wukan is a sign of things to come—as time goes on, more and more Chinese people will be agitating for a say over matters that affect them. The next Wukan might already be on the horizon. Will the new Party leaders able to handle it?

[Image: December, 2011 protests in Wukan, courtesy MCT / Getty Images.]

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