Late last year, residents in the southern Chinese village of Wukan rioted and overthrew corrupt local leaders who had profited from illegal sales of village land. Their efforts and supposed success in strengthening local democracy and raising the possibility of fashioning remedies to reclaim illegally sold land became known as the “Wukan model” and stoked speculation that the villagers’ actions could be emulated in other parts of China.
As a new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders takes power amid the public dissatisfaction with government corruption, that ”model” in Wukan has faded from view.
In its wake, a harsher reality has emerged: With local officials clinging tenaciously to power, efforts to change rural land transfer rules — an issue at the heart of much of the unrest that frightens Beijing — would raise major legal and policy issues of a kind the central Party-state is reluctant to tackle.
Immediately after riots broke out in Wukan, Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang interceded, which led to free elections that resulted in the village leaders being displaced by protest leaders, who then undertook to undo illegal land sales. This supposed success, fueled by Wang Yang’s involvement and attention from both traditional and social media, inspired a small number of reported village protests elsewhere in the country.
Today, those same Wukan villagers are frustrated because their original grievances have yet to be resolved. Disappointment has also reached other villages that had been encouraged by Wukan as an example of change arising from Chinese society. For example, an activist in a Zhejiang village, who had led protests against corrupt local leaders, was elected as village leader, but she found she could not work with the new party head. She then went to Wukan “on a whim,” only to be disappointed at finding reform had faltered there.
Meanwhile, the 18th Party Congress opened with signals by outgoing President Hu Juntao that although some economic reforms are contemplated, “the party has no intention of relaxing its grip on politics or the economy.”
A close look at the failure of the Wukan protests to reclaim the illegally sold land and make progress toward grassroots democracy raises a host of issues:
First, undoing the land sales has been complicated. It is unclear how much land can be reclaimed. Nearly 60 percent of the village’s 11 square miles was reportedly sold beginning in 1993. Some land has since been resold, in some cases more than once. Another complicating factor is the involvement not only of Wukan village officials, but higher-level officials at both township and country levels.
The entire system of rural land rights, as Elizabeth Lynch of China Law & Policy writes, “has been predicated on the ability of governments to easily and cheaply take rural lands without providing the villagers with a more realistic compensation.” The compensation given to famers for land takings, according to a survey in 2011 of almost 1800 villages in 17 provinces, is grossly inadequate: Almost 22% received no compensation, and the mean compensation for the rest was the equivalent of $18,000 per acre, while authorities received the equivalent of $740,000 per acre, mostly involving commercial projects.
As for upper level support for the “Wukan model,” the senior leader once most closely associated with it, Party chief Wang Yang, has been at pains to deemphasize its implications for reform., Asked earlier this year about the election in Wukan, one foreign media report said, “he played down the election of several protest leaders to the village committee saying that the poll adhered to existing Chinese laws on village governance. ‘We merely implemented fully what’s already on the books. That’s all.’”
Wukan nevertheless retains symbolic significance. On November 15th, Xie Chuntao, a professor at the Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, posted an article on an official website on “key challenges” faced by the Party. He began by saying that “maintaining social stability is a major challenge” that the Party faces now and mentioned the “Wukan incident” as an example.
He went on to state that land acquisition problems are urban as well, and that the number and intensity of urban disputes “stemming from land acquisition and resident relocation are the most serious.” He offered no specific solutions, but called for public comment on wealth distribution and increasing the social safety net. Further, he urged the promotion of democracy, timely resolution of disputes and conflict, and the promotion of accountability.
It is interesting that Xie nowhere mentions legal institutions. The current system does not afford legal means of undoing corrupt land takings. As Professor Sun Liping of Qinghua University has pointed out, the state can’t afford to pay public funds to compensate for unlawful takings. Agricultural land is owned by the villages, and compensation decisions by village leaders are evidently not subject to judicial review. The law could be changed, as by requiring a court order before a transfer occurs. However, because the Chinese judicial system is subject to the political demands of the Party-state it hard to envision courts being impartial and free from outside interference in cases involving land takings, which are a major source of wealth in China’s countryside.
In the face of the problems mentioned here, it is no wonder that the Wukan mode has “fizzled.” The Wukan events and the lack of progress a year after they first arose suggests the extent to which the protests, the institutions involved and the stark policy issues confronting the Party-state present major challenges to China’s new leadership. The uprising in a little village symbolizes issues of law and policy that are intimately intertwined throughout Chinese society and must be unwound.
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, is a Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).