Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chinese villagers' revolt attracts worldwide attention; will more villages follow suit?

A story
out of Wukan, China has attracted persistent coverage during the past few weeks. I first heard of Wukan (a/k/a Wuhan) on December 15, 201, when this story appeared in the New York Times and NPR also ran a story. Here's the lede from that mid-December story.
A long-running dispute between farmers and local officials in Southern China exploded into open rebellion this week after villagers chased away government leaders, set up road blocks, and began arming themselves with homemade weapons, residents said.

The conflict in Wukan, a coastal settlement of 20,000 in the country's industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, escalated Monday after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Community Party had died in police custody.

* * *

Spasms of social turmoil in China have become increasingly common, a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. But the clashes in Wukan, which initially erupted in September, are unusual for their longevity--and for the brazenness of the villagers as they call attention to their frustrations.
The story goes on to report that the essential dispute regards whether farmers were adequately compensated for land that went to developers. In fact, the "discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade" because "land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes."

A second story, which ran about a week ago, credits the Wukan villagers for their success in attracting attention, calling them "canny." It tells of how villagers have grasped the power of the media and bloggers to cover their plight, even as they have asked journalists not to label it an "uprising."
Revolt or not, the protest over land sales here, which began months ago, was sustained in its final and most perilous phase by the villagers' canny interactions with journalists from foreign and Hong Kong news organizations. Mainland Chinese news media were barred from reporting on Wukan, but dozens of reporters for foreign publications arrived here last week after being alerted to the protest by an article in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. They slipped through a police cordon by traveling on motor rickshaws along winding dirt roads and, in one case, by hiring a boat to reach the harbor.

The villagers threw open their doors. They now had the means to wage a propaganda war.
A retired Chinese professor notes that Guangdong's situation near Hong Kong has been critical to these events because villagers like those in Wukan get their news from Hong Kong rather than from China Central Television. This gives them a "better understanding of civil society and the rule of law."

The most recent story suggests that the problem for the Chinese government goes beyond Wukan. The latest story appeared under the headline, "A Village in Revolt Could be a Harbinger for China."
There are 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the sort of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.
One China expert opined that 50-60% of Chinese villages "suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that beset Wukan, albeit not so severe." The story continues with a discussion of local government in China:
On paper, the Wukan protests should never have happened: China's village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves. Moreover, the government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent.

Village self-administration, as the central government calls it, is seen by many foreigners as China's democratic laboratory--and while elections can be rigged and otherwise swayed, many political scientists say they are, on balance, a good development.
Time will tell, of course, whether protests like that in Wukan spread, from country to city, and around the vast nation.

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