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Message from Wukan

Beijing can ignore the recent outburst in Wukan at its own peril: there are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China

Written by New York Times | Beijing |
December 27, 2011 2:05:41 am


China’s state-run media have had a field day this autumn with Occupy Wall Street,spinning an almost daily morality play about capitalism gone amok and an American government unable or unwilling to aid the victims of a rapacious elite.

Occupy Wukan is another matter entirely. The state press has been all but mute on why 13,000 Chinese citizens,furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite,sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake Wukan. But the village takeover can be ignored only at Beijing’s peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China,all small,locally run villages that frequently suffer the sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.

“What happened in Wukan is nothing new. It’s all across the country,” said Liu Yawei,an expert on local administration who is the director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. A second analyst,Li Fan,estimated,in an interview,that 50 per cent to 60 per cent of Chinese villages suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that apparently beset Wukan. Li leads the World and China Institute,a private nonprofit research centre based in Beijing that has studied local election and governance issues.

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On paper,the Wukan protests never should have happened: China’s village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves.

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.

Actually running the villages,however,is another matter. Village committees must provide many of the services offered by governments,such as sanitation and social welfare,but they cannot tax their residents or collect many fees. Any efforts to raise additional money,for things like economic development,usually need approval from the Communist Party-controlled township or county seats above them.

In practice,the combination of the villages’ need for cash and their dependence on higher-ups has bred back-scratching and corruption between village officials and their overseers. China’s boom in land prices has only broadened the opportunity for siphoning off money from village accounts.

“Land sales are where the big money is,” Edward Friedman,a political science professor and a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,said. The opportunities to get that share are vast,apparently. In 2003,a candidate for village committee chairman in Laojiaotou village,in Shanxi Province,spent two million renminbi—then about $245,000—to campaign for an office that paid 347 renminbi a month,the Chinese journal Legal News reported at the time.

In interviews this month,leaders of the Wukan protest said it was common knowledge that local government and Communist Party officials had spent millions of renminbi to buy potentially lucrative posts.

Many details of the practices that incited Wukan’s protests are murky. Even before the residents chased their village committee leaders from town on December 11,the village committee’s accounting ledger had been taken away,ostensibly for an audit.

Leaders of the protest contend,however,that the village committee sold off or granted long-term leases to nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles over an 18-year period beginning in 1993. Just how the land was sold remains unclear. Under Chinese law,such sales are supposed to require approval of the villagers,who collectively own the land and are supposed to share in the proceeds. But the approval process is vague; in practice,most decisions are left to the elected village committee or an appointed village legislature that acts on behalf of the residents.

The sales also required approval by Donghai township,the level of government just above Wukan. The land went to hotels,homes,factories,power companies and even private funerary temples. One wealthy villager,Chen Wenqing,gained a business interest in Wukan’s harbour and a 50-year lease on a large tract of land. A plan this year to sell Chen’s farm and an equal amount of villagers’ farmland to developers of a luxury housing was the final straw,though,mobilising villagers to protest.

Villagers say they have no idea where the proceeds from any of the sales or rentals went.

It took a de facto revolt by Wukan’s residents to force Guangdong Province officials to step into the crisis,calling the villagers’ grievances legitimate and promising to address them. Wukan’s village committee chief and its party secretary are under investigation,a move that probably will end in stiff punishment.

The state-run press has hailed the Guangdong response as a model of government responsiveness and a template for handling public grievances in the future. Yet some observers of Chinese governance are less sanguine. In their view,Wukan’s uprising highlighted systemic defects in China’s local governments,and only a housecleaning—not an isolated slap on the wrist—will address them.

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