Tag Archives: Wukan

One Law, Two Systems

The law is ruling overtime in China, and doing so under several spotlights that cast it in an uneven light.

Xie Yalong, the 56 year old former head of China’s professional football league, has just gone on trial, the most senior official to date in the corruption scandal that has engulfed the sport and captured the attention of a nation. Dozens of referees, players, officials and coaches have been arrested since an anti-corruption investigation started in 2009. Xie has been charged with taking more than 1.7 million yuan ($270 million) in bribes. His successor, Nan Yong, faces similar charges.

Xie’s defence is that he is guilty but not as guilty as charged, and that he is a victim of the legal system, having been mistreated during the investigation. It is a line that resonates with many of the public, who are familiar with local official corruption and the heavy handed treatment that can be meted out to those who run up against it. As is emerging in the case of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Party boss of Chongqing who is now being very publicly subjected to the rule of law, that can be heavy handed in the extreme. Some of those convicted during Bo leadership in the city are now petitioning to have their convictions overturned. Meanwhile, two officials from Wukan had been expelled from the Communist Party over illegal land deals that eventually led to the social uprising that saw locals run Party officials out of their town last year. Eighteen  others are being dealt with under the Party’s disciplinary procedures, a reminder that there are parallel systems of punishment.

 

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Social Management In Wukan And Beyond

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.

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Catch 22 At Wukan

The Party has a thin line to walk in dealing with the outbreak of social unrest in Wukan, the Guangdong fishing village that has been in revolt since September over allegedly illegal land acquisitions by local officials. Authorities are laying siege to the rebellious village — a coastal fishing community of some 20,000 people within Shanwei township some 150 kilometers northwest of Hong Kong– following further demonstrations after the death this week of one of the protestors’ leaders, Xue Jinbo, in disputed circumstances while in police detention.

With no food or fuel being allowed into Wukan and their fishing fleet blockaded, villagers say they have supplies to hold out for 10 days. Internet connections have been severed and the electricity supply reportedly threatened to be cut off.

An attempt by armed police to reenter the village last weekend was rebuffed. With foreign reporters in the village and the protests gaining worldwide attention, regardless of internal censorship of the events, authorities cannot readily storm the village to retake it by overwhelming force. Instead they are trying carrot and stick: a promise of an investigation into the land transactions and the removal of a couple of local officials, but also stern threats of punishment for the protests’ leaders.

Yet rounding up the usual suspects is no longer an adequate response on the part of the authorities. Thousands of villagers, who were promised a similar investigation after a demonstration in November, are so far standing firm (and their organizers demonstrating global media savvy). But blockading Wukan starts a countdown clock for ending the stand-off one way or another.

Few demonstrations have found the spotlight as Wukan’s have, or been allowed to escalate as far, but the discontent that provoked them is not uncommon. Across the country, villagers accuse local officials of colluding with developers and illegally confiscating collectively owned land without offering fair or any compensation. During the November demonstrations in Wukan, one protester claimed that local officials had pocketed 700 million yuan ($110 million) from selling land to developers for factories, while each villager received merely 550 yuan ($86) in compensation.

Land disputes have become one of the leading causes of the tens of thousands of large-scale protests that occur in China every year. Violent confrontation between Chinese and their government is becoming more frequent. In September hundreds of villagers overturned police cars and besieged government buildings in Wukan in protest against the land seizures, to which police responded with force in equal measure.

Earlier this month, Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief, warned that the economic slowdown could lead to a rise in social unrest, and told local party and government officials to deal with potential conflicts to minimize social unrest. Guangdong has seen its share of protests by factory workers in the past year, but none proved as difficult for authorities to deal with as the restiveness in Wukan, largely because of the systemic local corruption involved in most cases of alleged illegal land seizures.

Corruption is one of the “four dangers” that President Hu Jintao warned against at the Party’s 90th birthday bash in July. Wukan’s residents have appealed to Beijing for justice. Central government may well have to descend from on high to resolve the situation, but that is likely to mean that it will not end well for either local officials or the villagers’ leaders. Yet Beijing faces a Catch-22: social unrest has to be put down because it is a threat to its rule, yet so is suppressing a widespread and legitimate grievance on the part of its citizens, who do not see objecting to the corruption of local officials as a criminal act.

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