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How the Wukan Revolt Could Change Chinese Politics

By Elizabeth Pond

The Arab Spring may be spreading to China after all. For the first time since the country became prosperous—and more than half a billion subsistence farmers were lifted out of abject poverty—critical peasant mass is colliding with an unpredictable shift to the next generation of Communist Party leaders.

How Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang handles the farmers' revolt in the village of Wukan in his province may well determine not only his own political prospects, but also China's future policy direction.

In the past five years there have been up to 200,000 scattered demonstrations by aggrieved peasants whose land has been expropriated by encroaching municipalities in the world's fastest urbanization in history. Yet these "mass incidents," as they are called, have until now remained local, without generating any regional or national resonance. Protesters are occasionally assuaged by partial concessions; more often, they are repressed. Rarely do those who appeal for restitution to Beijing—nowadays to the party leadership rather than to the emperor—get any response.

Indeed, the national leadership eschews enforcement of its own growing legal guarantees of peasant land tenure. Expropriation of land with fair compensation is legal if local municipal authorities prove a clear need for it for the common weal—if China's tiny seven percent of arable land is not thereby reduced. But confiscating cropland with no recompense, or buying it at dirt-cheap rural prices in order to sell it at an astronomical mark-up to developers of middle-class residential suburbs—as in Wukan—is clearly illegal.

On this very unlevel playing field the peasants have almost always lost, all too often at the cost of torture and murder of protest ringleaders. But this time, after the death in jail of the negotiator the Wukan villagers had selected to represent them, the angry protesters elected their own village leaders and refused to buckle to the police siege the local officials resorted to. They further circumvented censorship of the domestic internet by smuggling foreign reporters through police lines to publicize their cause around the globe.

Remarkably, the police pulled back this past week; the local Communist bosses fled; and higher-level provincial party officials agreed to free the three villagers still in custody, to give the body of the man who died in custody to his family, to investigate the whole fracas—and not to treat the newly elected village leaders as criminals.

By now the Wukan protest has achieved too much mass and publicity to be smothered as easily as its thousands of isolated predecessors. The Arab Spring that the party hierarchy greatly fears may finally be starting—not among the expanding middle class, as some Western analysts anticipate, but among the peasants who so often in Chinese history have brought down dynasties.

It's not that the Wukan peasants are challenging party authority. On the contrary, reports suggest that most of them are still operating on the traditional assumption that if only the higher authorities can be made aware of their fate, justice will follow.

Nonetheless, at this point the Wukan protest inevitably intersects with the power struggle at the top. The Communist Party will select its "fifth generation" of leaders in the five-year rotation in senior office that Chairman Mao Zedong's successor, Deng Xiaoping, institutionalized. From now until next fall, there will be a subliminal campaign to fill the seven (out of nine) seats that will be vacated on the party's top policy body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

To date, the mantle that Deng bestowed on his own immediate successors has allowed for the development of two identifiable factions within the party: one more authoritarian, one more liberal. The result has been a collective (i.e., balanced) leadership that has largely continued Deng's marketization of the economy and de facto decentralization in the form of varied local social experiments.

Fourteen years after Deng's death, however, his writ no longer determines the succession. The appointment of heir apparent Xi Jinping as president still seems assured; the appointment of heir apparent Li Keqiang as premier is less certain. But the most dramatic contest is the one for the PSC seats. The rivalry is described in shorthand as the "youth league" (those who worked their way up through the Communist ranks in the post-Mao era) vs. the "princelings" (scions of the party's old aristocracy).

Here the two gladiators are, respectively, Guangdong's Wang Yang and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Wang Yang climbed the party youth league ladder and last year settled burgeoning strikes in Guangdong's export workshop of the world by getting factory owners to raise wages substantially. Bo Xilai, the son of an early comrade of Mao's—who now runs the only inland city to report directly to Beijing—made his name by crusading against racketeering and by absorbing adjacent farmland to build showcase suburbs of high-rise apartments. Their very different records would imply quite different policies if one gains more power than the other.

The joker here is the anomaly between promotion by the national leadership—and a chain of  party officials and party-approved think tanks—of ever stronger legal protection of peasant land tenure on the one hand, and Beijing's refusal to enforce its own laws on the other. Legislation now requires that land contracts and certificates be given to peasants guaranteeing them 30-year renewable use of their plots. The senior party bureaucrat who drafts this land legislation, Chen Xiwen, is an alumnus of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Rural Development Institute. And one of the fiercest public defenders of peasant land rights, Yu Jianrong, works at Chen's old thinktank, the Rural Development Institute.

Yet the schizophrenia of the top hierarchy continues. It not only refuses to enforce its laws. It also sends a strong contrary signal in its advancement policy within the party. Whatever the law says, those urban cadres who are squeamish about expropriating surrounding cropland get left behind. Those who generate the most wealth the fastest, usually on the basis of converting nearby peasant land into high-priced municipal property, get promoted.

It would be simplistic to expect Wang Yang—should he attain preeminence in the next five-year political cycle—to champion peasant rights that hinder hyperfast economic growth just because he settled workers' strikes in 2010 with wage increases and quieted Wukan's protests in 2011 by a truce negotiated with the farmers. Equally, it would be simplistic to expect Bo Xilai—should he attain preeminence—to ride roughshod over China's 650,000,000 peasants just because he once converted many acres of their land into commercial and residential showpieces in the "Chongqing model." Especially now that Wukan villagers have done the unthinkable and unseated local officials, both Wang and Bo will want to zigzag tactically and spread the factional responsibility for policies that will be increasingly risky and might blow up on them either way.

By now the peasant mass reached in Wukan cannot be retracted. The large sign villagers put up "warmly welcoming" province officials after they themselves had chased away local officials is a warning as much as a greeting. It carries with it more than a whiff of the Arab Spring.

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American author and journalist. She last wrote about rural China in the year-end issue of Survival and for the WPJ blog in July.

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