Rebels quashed by New Year gift

2012-01-26Asia Times

BEIJING - It was for a few weeks the symbol of rebellion in communist China, the sign of the crippling of the state power, and the glaring signal of a coming revolution in Beijing. For weeks, the people of Wukan, a former fishing village in the southern province of Guangdong, fought against authorities who had allegedly seized common land, turned it into real estate while pocketing most of the proceeds, and rigged local elections.

The Wukan people, who had been left with no money and no land, rose up against the corrupt party chief and his minions, kicked them out of the village, and held their ground against the officials. For weeks, authorities tried a violent crackdown on the rebellion, which eventually became national and international news.

Eventually, in the middle of January, shortly before the Chinese New Year, when traditionally all accounts have to be settled, provincial and national authorities decided to step in, making an unexpected decision. The leader of the rebellion, Lin Zuluan, 67, the age when leaders in China retire, was appointed secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party. He will be responsible for organizing a new local poll. Most of the press saluted the event, arguing that it marks a potential breakthrough in the way Beijing deals with dissent.

However, aside from that, there are several other important lessons to learn from the Wukan case. First, the objective reasons: revolutions are very hard by themselves in China (see China: The impossible revolution ( Asia Times Online, October 2005 ).

Moreover, Chinese leaders are much smarter, more adaptable, and more nimble than some of the caricatures commonly traded abroad and also in China. They can sense the direction of the wind and can change their ways. If they do not change, it may also be an indication that the wind does not blow very strongly.

In other words, political reforms in China are possible, and the leaders may lend their ears to it, but they must be first fully convinced it is the solution that will give peace to the country, not bring chaos to it. In fact, the communists are good at accomplishing what every power does when challenged: co-opt the rebels.

In this case - because this is often the way in China - it is very likely that Lin had ties and discussions with provincial authorities long before his appointment as party chief.

This solution, from the rulers' side and the side of the common people, proves that rebels do not want to topple the Communist Party, but just want to have concrete advantages - less corruption and more money distributed. The Chinese rebels, so far at least, do not have an ideological and overwhelming project to change the political system.

That would make goals more complicated to achieve for the rebels (it is hard to change a political system especially in a large country like China), and also it would make it harder for the rulers to compromise (how can they compromise with someone who wants them out of power and suddenly change the system used to run the country?).

In fact, this attitude, which is not ultimately confrontational, could be the basis for a healthy political dialogue between the people and political leaders, and it could serve as a vehicle for the recruitment of a new class of cadres who could bring new energy to the party.

This is a long-term trend, however. One more immediate consequence of this solution in Wukan is that local party chiefs have been warned - they only have the conditional support of Beijing. They have to manage the situation well; otherwise, Beijing will intervene and dismiss them by siding with the people who are rebelling.

This - being China, the land of plotters and schemers - could kindle new political dynamics. Local ambitious people - or even gangs - could start to blackmail local authorities: give me a piece of the cake, or I will start a riot because of which you will lose your post. The influence of gangs in some local elections is not a new phenomenon in China or elsewhere, and in southern Italy (where this writer comes from), it is an established pattern of influence.

From this, there may be developments in China leading to more sophisticated political mechanisms. Higher authorities may want to have greater representative powers vested in them (by being elected by a greater number of people), which could allow them to investigate and crack down on cases where gangs and local mafias attempt to use the new freedom to move up the political ladder.

Yet the long-term solution to this cannot be reverting to Maoist-style crackdowns: people will simply not tolerate the massive loss of freedom that goes with those old fashion anti-mafia campaigns. The rule by small abuses of small gangs can't be resolved by substituting the rule by large abuses of a large government.

After some brief relief, eventually people will regret accepting the small abuses of the small gangs. Many in the party may realize that from the point of view of greater political stability, more widespread elections are more easily controlled and cleaner than smaller elections where small amounts of money and a few thugs can bend results one way or another.

On a very immediate level, Wukan is a huge boost for Wang Yang, the Guangdong party chief; and his immediate mentor, President Hu Jintao. Wang Yang, formerly the Chongqing party chief, had been under pressure since Bo Xilai took over Chongqing. A dialectic between the two models (roughly: more state-controlled with Bo, a more free-wheeling market with Wang) started a huge debate in China about the future direction of the country.

Now, the fact that Wang Yang had to face this challenge in Wukan and came up with a brilliant solution puts him in a very good position for an important spot on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which should be chosen at the Party Congress this autumn. Here we also have an indication of the Wang Yang political agenda.

On January 4, shortly before the solution of the Wukan case, when talks with rebel leaders were likely underway, Wang said at a provincial party plenum, "30 years ago, the reform focused on shaking off the shackles of ideology; today's reform must focus on breaking the constraints of the existing pattern of vested interests. If the direction of reform is decided only by this interest structure, the reform can no longer proceed." [1]

Breaking the shackles of existing interest groups (see China's misread property 'bubble' ( Asia Times Online, October 27, 2010 ), which are thwarting change in the country, and relaunching reforms, now, 20 years after Deng Xiaoping's trip to the south, which restarted reforms after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, is an important theme being discussed in China at the moment.

Wang, certainly with Hu Jintao's support, is stating his position, which becomes much stronger after the Wukan solution and the result of the Taiwan elections, which went also according to Hu's wishes (see Ma's re-election rings loudest on the mainland ( Asia Times Online, January 19, 2012 and Hu Jintao the real Taiwan election victor ( Asia Times Online, December 11, 2011 ).

The last element in the Wukan case, the consequences, is still a very open issue. Can the Wukan experience help Beijing in confronting protests in places like Tibet or Xinjiang, where local grievances are compounded with religious and ethnic differences, and where prejudice on both sides plays a role?

Here the situation is far more complicated because forces outside of China, such as the Tibetan people surrounding the Dalai Lama and Tibetan youth organizations, may have a hand in this. However, again there is a lesson: Chinese leaders have opened a season of creative political thinking, which can be riskier but can also bring greater results.

1. See Nanfang ribao (, January 5, 2012, Wang Yang canjia xiaozu taoloun: shenhua gaige yao ganyu dapo liyi geju.  (2012-01-26 Asia Times)


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