In defusing the Wukan protest, the Party has taken the high ground of beneficent paternalism, just as it did after violent protests by migrant workers in Guangdong in July. This is becoming a standard method for containing and defusing social unrest, though it risks promoting by example the idea that, for the aggrieved, escalating a protest works.
In the Wukan land-grab case, blame has been laid squarely on the shoulders of local officials. They are accused of incompetence, not corruption, mishandling a legitimate grievance thus letting it escalate into a ‘mass incident’. Detainees are being released. An autopsy will be conducted into the death in police detention of a village leader ; the original contentious land deal will be investigated. A police blockade of Wuhan has been lifted while villagers have dismantled their makeshift barricades. State media praised high-level Guangdong officials for resolving the matter and reminded all lower level local ones that they need to “grasp the interest and demands of the masses”. The subtext: we don’t want to see any repeats of this sort of challenge to Party rule; get them sorted before they blow up.
Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo member who was once China’s top policeman, has repeated the message, but with a rider to remind the masses who carries the big stick. At a conference on political and legal issues in Beijing this week he told authorities to “crack down on crimes and violence against national unity in order to maintain national safety and stability”.
The spotlight of world attention that the Wukan protesters were able to occupy gave them a deal of protection against being cracked down upon. A parallel protest in Haimen, over alleged police violence and the environmental damage caused by a local power station along the coast from Wukan, is struggling to do the same. Tear gas was fired at protesters there a day after thousands of locals closed a highway and clashed with armed police.
Authorities have proven ways of managing isolated protests over local abuses of power, which are increasingly common–230,000 a year now on some estimates–and sometimes violent. Beyond riot policing with a heavy hand and rapid deployment, they try to keep them localized and grievence-specific. Beijing’s fear is that social unrest coalesces across social classes into a broader movement that threatens the Party’s rule, as in 1989. Many protestors understand the rules, appealing, as in the Wukan and Haimen cases, over the heads of local officials to higher-levels of government, explicitly not questioning the legitimacy of the Party as such.
That does not make the Party’s concern about social unrest as a byproduct of economic development any less acute. This year, for the first time, China has spent more on public security than on its military. Police stations are being modernized, personnel trained and equipped with state-of-the-art technology, such as Harbin police’s new armed anti-personnel carriers.
What Beijing doesn’t want is local officials undermining its social management, for reasons of either greed or incompetence. At their national annual meeting this week, the country’s prosecutors said that between January and November they investigated 2,475 government officials at county level or above for abuses of power. Their priority targets for next year are crimes related to the abuse of power by officials, dereliction of duty and work-related crimes in major accidents, bribery in local elections, the practice of buying and selling official posts and protecting mafia-style gangs. No protest from the villagers of Wukan about any of that.