Unwanted model | The Economist

MARCHING by the thousands this week in stifling heat through their small coastal village, residents of Wukan carried Chinese flags and shouted out slogans in support of the Communist Party. That was just to protect themselves from retribution by the riot police, who watched them closely but did not intervene. Their real message was in other chants: “Give us back our land!” and “Free Secretary Lin!”

The secretary in question was their village chief, Lin Zulian, whom they elected in 2012 in what was widely hailed at the time as a breakthrough for grassroots democracy. Mr Lin had led Wukan in a months-long rebellion against local authorities. Villagers kicked out party officials and police from their offices in protest against the alleged seizure of some of Wukan’s land by corrupt officials who had lined their pockets with the proceeds of selling it. Police responded by blockading the village, turning it into a cause célèbre—including in some of the feistier of China’s heavily censored media. In the end the government backed down: it allowed Wukan to hold unusually free elections and it promised to sort out the land dispute. The “Wukan model” became Chinese reformists’ shorthand for what they hoped would be a new way of defusing unrest.

They have been disappointed. Villagers did not get their land back, or the money some wanted in lieu of it. Mr Lin, who won another landslide victory in elections two years ago, announced plans on June 18th to launch a new campaign for the return of the land. That was clearly too much for the local government: Mr Lin was promptly arrested on charges of corruption. Angry residents took to the streets again.

Villagers in China often stage protests over land rights; local authorities usually deal with them either with force, or by promising concessions and then rounding up the ringleaders. Restoring calm to Wukan will be tougher. Because of its fame, journalists have poured in, especially from nearby Hong Kong. Local officials may be reluctant to resort to the usual thuggish tactics in front of such an audience.

In an effort to undermine support for Mr Lin, the government has tried blackening his name. On June 21st officials released a video showing him confessing to bribe-taking. But that merely stoked the villagers’ anger. His wife, Yang Zhen, says she is certain the confession was coerced. His halting delivery in substandard Mandarin, she believes, was his way of letting villagers know this. “They are trying to deceive everyone, but no one believes it,” she says. Dozens of furious villagers went to a local school where nervous officials had barricaded themselves behind metal doors and barred windows; they kicked the doors and shouted abuse. As The Economist went to press, Wukan was preparing to embark on its sixth consecutive day of protest.

Many residents say they have lost all faith in the local government, and that only the central authorities in Beijing will be able to find a fair solution. “They took our land. My father and grandfather farmed it, and now I have nothing. No work and no other path forward,” says a 39-year-old villager. “We have a black government, all corrupt. They cannot trick us again with more talk of the ‘Wukan model’. We need our land back,” he fumes.

But the central government will be reluctant to cave in to the protesters’ demands. “Handling the Wukan problem well means much to the rest of China,” said Global Times, a pro-party paper in Beijing. But it warned that if the “drastic actions” of Wukan’s villagers were copied by others, China would “see mess and disturbance” at the grassroots. In a country where many seethe with grievances similar to Wukan’s, officials do not want the village to become a model for revolt.

Source: Unwanted model | The Economist

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