By Sun Liping (孙立平), Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University
Observer, page 45
Issue No. 557
Feb 20, 2012
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article: [Chinese]
The Significance of the Wukan Model
Things have taken a new turn.
The Wukan incident (乌坎事件), which initially posed serious challenges for all parties involved, has now entered onto a more positive track after a turning point of historic significance.
A new communist party branch was set up in the village, a village election committee and village representatives were also elected through a democratic process that the people of the village considered fair. The election of the village committee is also in the works. [This article was written prior to the March 3 and March 5 elections that saw seven members of village committee voted in.]
What is the Significance of Wukan's Election?
Some people say that we shouldn't exaggerate the significance of the Wukan elections, because similar votes have taken place in the past and some of them were handled even better than this one. If we are simply talking about the conditions of the ballot itself, I agree with this view.
But if we place the vote in the context of the chain of events surrounding the incident, especially if we can compare it to elections held in much calmer political climates, I think it takes on a different kind of significance.
The events leading up to the vote unfolded like this: a certain incident led to a severe breakdown in the relationship between officials and the people, after a period of time during which both parties tested the other, they ultimately chose to use a rational method that allowed for a compromise settlement of the dispute.
The method agreed to was to rely on elections and a democratic process. This method helps to stop disputes from spiraling out of control and instead allows for positive developments to build in a self-reinforcing fashion. Elections meet the needs of both the public, who are striving to protect their rights and interests, and also the government, which aims to resolve the conflict and also maintain social stability.
We can say that this whole process was in keeping with the basic logic of Chinese politics and furthermore, given that Wukan was able to achieve all this, especially given the tense circumstances, offers proof that democratic means can be used to solve problems in China. It's also a sign that Chinese society has the potential to be both more democratic and also capable of long-term stability.
This is what I think is the real significance of the Wukan incident.
Lessons for the Nation
In fact, the "Wukan problem" is really a microcosm of the broader "China problem."
The key point of the Wukan experiment is whether we are able to achieve two goals simultaneously: ensuring that the people have the right to stand and struggle for their own interests, while at the same time making sure that society is able to maintain a basic level of stability while resolving these conflicts.
These competing concerns are at the very heart of the problems currently facing Chinese society and attempts to resolve the contradiction will test the wisdom of the Chinese.
The experiment is in keeping with the basic logic of reform of the Chinese political system.
This reform will be even harder than those which saw farming collectives replaced by households in the late 1970s, and thus is even more meaningful.
Although media coverage of the election has emphasized the independence and transparency of the voting process, I think it's even more significant that after things had settled down, the authorities were willing to allow one of the protest leaders, Lin Zuluan (林祖銮), to serve as the new head of Communist Party of the village.
Similarly, Hong Ruichao (洪睿超), who participated in the demonstration and was one of five people arrested by the police last December, has now been elected as a member of the election committee. Likewise, the daughter of Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), who led Wukan village residents in the protests and who later died in police custody, was also elected as a village representative.
This is very unusual. In the past, even though the public's demands might be recognized as reasonable and even though authorities might go so far as to make serious economic concessions, the leaders of the protest would always be subject to some kind of punishment.
This is what people often refer to as "settling accounts after autumn" (秋后算账) - that is, waiting until the situation has calmed down before showing the protest leaders who is boss, its purpose is to deter those who might consider attempting similar actions in the future.
When the Wukan incident first began to show signs of improving, people were worried that the same thing could happen again this time, leading to yet another deterioration in the situation.
But as we can see, this time something really is different.
So, while it might be true that this is not the first time that an election has been held to settle conflicts between officials and the public, it very well might be the first time that the leaders of a protest movement have been appointed leaders and that protest leaders (or members of their family) have been elected as representatives of the people.
We can also say that the Wukan experience is a very real acknowledgement of the principle that "it's reasonable for the public to demand that their interests are looked after," it's also a sign that respect is being given to the principle that the public should strive to stand up for their rights and it marks an end to the era when officials followed the old play book of "settling accounts after autumn."
And it's precisely in these changes that we can see the distinguishing features of this new model for resolving conflict between officials and the people.
Of course, this development is a product both of the increasing strength of the public to resist and also of a greater openness on the part of the government.
Why Guangdong is Special
Perhaps we can appreciate the significance of this breakthrough if we put it in the context of what has been going on in Guangdong over recent years.
Over the past couple of years there have been two trends worthy of our attention.
Firstly, there have been a quite number of mass incidents (群体性事) in Guangdong over the past few years. I think there are two major reasons for this: Guangdong is the pioneer of China's "reform and opening-up" policy and is also one of the most economically developed regions in China.
If we look at it from another angle, we can say that the defects of China's past development model are nowhere more apparent than in Guangdong.
Thus, the most typical problems in our society are likely to emerge first and also in greater numbers in Guangdong.
For example, among the 110 million people living in the province, there are about 30 to 40 million who are from other parts of China, the problems and conflicts associated with this influx of migrants is of course more of an issue here than in other regions.
Guangdong also has a much stronger tradition of, if not quite "civil society," at least of society not being so dominated by government, than any other region in China.
The Cantonese are a pragmatic people and are not easily fooled. The power of family networks is also deeply-rooted. In addition, especially in the east of the province, the people's awareness of their own rights has always been relatively strong.
Given these conditions - a strong sense of their rights coupled with tight-knit social groups - it's not so difficult to understand why there are more examples of people protesting.
In the future, the rest of Chinese society will also need to deal with the phenomenon of more and more ordinary people becoming aware of their rights.
The second point that we need to pay attention to is that the provincial government has been trialing new ideas and models over recent years that various attempts have been made to defuse these growing social tensions.
The authorities' handling of the Wukan protests can be seen as an extension of these efforts.
Last year Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang made it clear that the government had to find the right balance when it came to maintaining stability (维稳) and protecting rights (维权).
In 2009, Chen Weiguang (陈伟光), deputy director of Guangzhou Municipal People's Congress Standing Committee and Chairman of the Municipal Federation of Trade Unions, suggested that striking among workers was not illegal, as it's still in a legal grey area, he also expressed his hopes that the issue of workers striking could soon be covered by the law.
I have also noticed in recent months that Guangdong officials have adopted an attitude of tacit consent in relation to some demonstrations which they didn't think were having big impact on social stability (including the early stages of the Wukan protest).
When sending police, they were mainly concerned with maintaining social order and making sure that no physical conflicts erupted.
In addition, Guangdong has also been pushing policies that promote "social construction" (社会建设) in recent years, these include initiatives like relaxing the requirements for people seeking to set-up various social groups and organizations and also the promotion of the establishment all kinds of independent social organizations.
We can summarize Guangdong's approach this way - they are trying to achieve the twin goals of allowing the public to express their interests and of maintaining social stability through the establishment of certain social mechanisms (社会性的机制).
From these two factors we can see that what is occurring on the ground in China is already forcing us to adopt a more open-minded model in order to solve the various kinds of conflicts and myriad other problems we now face.
Less Room For Mistakes
In recent years, the room for tolerating mistakes in our society has become less and less.
A few years ago, tens of millions of state-owned enterprise employees were laid-off, often without a clear determination of the rights and wrongs in each individual case, this didn't seem to cause too much of a problem.
In another case, a considerable number of people's social security and social welfare were removed over a short period of time, this also didn't appear to cause much of a problem.
The more recent examples of large scale housing demolitions and land requisitions, often carried out in a brutal and violent fashion, only seemed to result in some isolated acts of individual resistance.
However, we need to be aware that the space that our society has to tolerate such issues is rapidly shrinking.
Serious corruption and the weakness of the legal base of society have destroyed the forces that hold societies together and our shared sense of hope has been shattered.
The public is now more of their rights, yet the systems that the government has for dealing with these problems are not adequate.
All these factors are making our society increasingly vulnerable and the room for error is constantly shrinking.
In this situation, the likelihood of being able to deal with the social problems by continuing to delay or through suppression is growing increasingly small - we need to find a new model to solve these problems.
The "Correction Predicament" - Not Just Wukan
It's worth examining closely what took place in Wukan as the events touch upon important issues related to the broader dilemma regarding how China should attempt to solve increasing social tension.
The most important is what I refer to as the "correction predicament" (纠错困境).
Currently in China, both within and outside the official system, there are some issues that have remained unresolved for a long-time.
If we look at these issues closely, we can see that behind the surface problems, there exists a deeper dilemma - the "correction predicament."
To put it simply - if we go too far, we're worried we won't be able to find our way back.
When we meet this dilemma in everyday life it often shows up in this way: When dealing with a social problem, and the demands of the public are unreasonable, the government won't be able to resolve it. At the same time, if the demands of the public are reasonable, authotrities will find it even more difficult. Why?
Because if the demands of the public are reasonable, if you solve one problem, then ten others will emerge, if you solve ten, then you'll face 100.
This is because too many similar problems were created in the past yet still linger on.
In response to the many difficult issues that exist in Chinese society today, including social tensions and conflicts, many people argue that they should be resolved in accordance with the law. In theory, this is a good way. But when we set a precedent of solving one problem according to the law, it sets off a kind of chain reaction, and a series of prior problems reemerge, many of which can't actually be solved, or at least can't be worked out according to the rule of law.
This is the very real dilemma that we are facing. Moreover, as time goes by, the situation will become more serious.
Wukan as an Example
The Wukan incident provides us with an opportunity to better understand this dilemma.
The issue of land ownership was at the center of the Wukan incident, the villager's basic demand was that they be given back the land that their leaders had leased out to others. If we approach their concerns from a legal perspective, their case will obviously depend on the validity of the original land transfer agreement or contract.
According to China's contract law, all contracts are invalid if fraudulent or coercive means are used when entering into the contract. Contracts are also invalid if they are considered detrimental to the state, collectives or the interests of a third party.
There are two ways of dealing with invalid contracts - one is returning to the original situation, the other is to offer compensation.
On Dec 19 last year, Zheng Yanxiong (郑雁雄), the party head of Shanwei, announced at a press conference that development of a plot of land that had been leased to the Fengtian Livestock Products Company Ltd (丰田畜产有限公司) had already been called to a halt and that the government would coordinate compensation hearings for those who lost land and would also reclaim the 404 acres of land. The talks would be conducted in consultation with related government departments, involve input from the villages and would fully protect the interests of the villages.
Although there might be doubts about the legality of a party committee unilaterally deciding to take back the land, this decision represented a direct response to the central demand of the villagers, it was also a central factor in the resolution of the Wukan protests.
Basically the announcement was saying that the original land transfer contract has now been declared null and void.
Maybe it's based on the idea that we can say that during the process of signing the original contract, there were certain details that made the agreement invalid.
We can put debate about how we arrive at the decision of whether a contract is valid or not to one side, what we are most concerned about is the following two questions:
Firstly, How do we deal with the invalid contract?
In this sense, the people of Wukan can be considered fortunate, as the 404 acres of land had not yet been developed, the land can be handed back to the people it once belonged to.
What would have happened if the land had already been developed? It seems then only compensation would be appropriate.
But then the question is who pays the compensation and what do they use to compensate those who have suffered losses?
The answer can only be that the government compensates them with money from public funds.
Let's say that the government does have the ability to pay compensation (though we should remember Shanwei is a relatively underdeveloped region), as government finances have been collected from taxpayers, does it make sense to compensate those involved in an invalid commercial contract from general revenue?
In fact, the situation in Wukan is even more complicated, as the government has leased out over 3,000 acres of land in recent year, but for now they're only reclaiming 404 acres.
What will they do in relation to the other land?
The second question is related to the possibility of unleashing a flood of similar claims.
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in problems related to the acquisition of land and resettlement across the country.
If we took a close look at any of these irregular cases, I'm sure that quite a few would likely also be based on invalid contracts.
This raises the question, if Wukan can deal with their problems by relying on the rule of law, why can't other places?
Is it possible that other places could also use this invalid contract method to solve their problems?
The answer, undoubtedly, is no.
From here, you should be able to clearly see the difficulties we now face.
It is easy to solve one individual case, but if you want to raise it to the level of a pattern, then you must dismantle (拆解) this dilemma effectively.
In fact, for all the issues associated with such contentious issues as petitioning, unemployment and laid-off workers as well as family planning, we will soon face this "correction predicament."
If we attempt to return things back to how they were, we find it cannot be done; If we say compensation should be paid, it cannot be afforded.
How we deal with these issues is a real test for Chinese reformers and requires both courage and wisdom.
Escaping the Correction Predicament
China's reform and opening-up has lasted 30 years. These reforms have helped China enter a new era, but they have also has created a lot of problems.
In the past I have talked about the concept of a "transition trap" (转型陷阱).
When I talk about this correction predicament, it's a specific example of the logic of this transition trap.
When we find ourselves caught in this transition trap, we are faced with many problems and shortcomings. Now the problem is, that the difficulty in solving these problems doesn't simply lie with the vested interests group protecting the corrupt system, nor is related to how complex these problems and weakeness with system are in themselves, the difficulty has more to do with the correction predicament.
In relation to these problems, if we don't resolve them, they will accumulate over time, and also become even harder to overcome.
However, if we try too hard to solve them, it could cause a chain reaction and even go so far as to test the system’s ability to bear the strain.
When we face this kind of dilemma, there are two possibilities: either approach the problem with courage and determination or without.
China needs a real liberation movement, to talk with honesty and sincerity about the problems we face, to face these problems head on and not to avoid the mistakes and limitations of the past 30 years of reform. We need to be honest about the current predicament and the constraints and difficulties associated with it, to try and find a common purpose, those in power should reveal their determination to move forward, and the people should display their tolerance and understanding of the difficulties involved in solving the problems, rebuild a social consensus about the best way to get out of our predicament worked out on the basis of fairness and justice in an atmosphere of reconciliation.
By doing this, China can be put on a more positive track.
This is the challenge we now face, it is a fleeting historical opportunity.
Links and Sources
Economic Observer: China\'s Challenge: Social Disorder
Financial Times: Wukan officials punished over land sales
Caixin: An Insider\'s Account of the Wukan Protest
Caixin: The Wukan Breakthrough
New York Times: Protest’s Success May Not Change China
Wall Street Journal: Wukan Vote Offers Beijing a New Path
Wall Street Journal: Chinese Village Vote Tests Waters on Reform
WSJ China Real Time Report: Wukan Elections the Spark to Set the Prairie Ablaze?
Jamestown Foundation: The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent
Wikipedia: Protests of Wukan
This article was edited by Paul Pennay, a small section of the original was omitted from the translation.