Minxin Pei writes: Rapid economic growth hasn’t been able to stem the rising tide of discontent in China. Even as the economy has soared, the number of protests has jumped. So what’s really wrong?
The outbreak of spontaneous mass protest against corruption and abuse of power in China is showing no signs of abating. In the latest instance, which received sustained Western press coverage, thousands of villagers in Wukan, a farming community in Guangdong Province, “occupied” their village for nearly two weeks before successfully extracting important concessions from the provincial government, which had to dispatch a deputy party secretary to negotiate with the villagers. The specific trigger for this unusually large mass protest is a common scourge plaguing Chinese farmers: the theft of their land by local officials. Although farmers in China have, nominally at least, 30-year leases on their state-owned land, local officials often sell leases, for a huge profit, to commercial developers without bothering to consult the affected farmers. The lion’s share of proceeds from such illegal transactions go into the coffers of local governments and the pockets of corrupt officials, with the farmers, now landless and without income, receiving a pittance.
The villagers in Wukan are among millions of the victims of this widespread practice in China. Illegal land seizures (along with forced evictions in urban areas) have become the most common cause of collective protests and riots in China these days. Estimates by Chinese scholars suggest they account for roughly 60 percent of the so-called “mass incidents” recorded by Chinese authorities. Unlike the villagers in Wukan, who have won a promise from senior Guangdong officials to review the illicit land deals, the majority of farmers whose land was stolen have received little help from the government.
Because of the size, duration, and outcome of the protest in Wukan, analysts of Chinese politics are tempted to view this incident as a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps this incident will encourage aggrieved farmers elsewhere to organize and protest in a similar fashion? Perhaps the soft handling of Wukan’s protest suggests the Communist Party will behave differently in responding to social unrest?
One shouldn’t read too much into one incident. The most probable reason for the peaceful settlement of this incident had to do with succession politics in Beijing, as the party secretary in Guangdong, a hot contender for a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, could have endangered his own chances had the protest ended in a bloodbath. Unusual political circumstances forced local officials to behave with rare prudence and restraint. Nevertheless, the Wukan incident should worry Chinese Communist Party leaders.