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 percent to 60 percent of Chinese villages suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that apparently beset Wukan, albeit not so severe. Mr. Li leads the World and China Institute, a private nonprofit research center based in Beijing that has extensively studied local election and governance issues.
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. Moreover, the government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent.
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.
And the checks and balances — a village legislature to sign off on major decisions, a citizens’ accounting committee to watch over the village books — have turned out to be easily manipulated by those who really hold the power.
“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 in a telephone interview. “Every level can see how much better the level above it is doing. And each one wants to live at least that well. The system has within it a dynamic which makes people feel it’s only fair that they get their share of the wealth.”
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. They maintained that Wukan’s village committee stayed in power in part by threatening any challenges to its continued rule.
None of those allegations could be quickly confirmed. One verified statistic, however, is compelling. Of the nine members of Wukan’s village committee, five had held their posts since the committee system itself was set up under Mao Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping.
The same was true of the village’s Communist Party secretary, Xue Chang, who had held office since 1970 before being replaced amid Wukan citizen protests in September.
Though a village in legal terms, Wukan is bigger than most such entities. It sits in urban Guangdong Province, abutting a natural harbor on the Pacific Ocean that is ideal for development.
Many details of the practices that incited Wukan’s protests are murky. Even before the residents chased their village committee leaders from town on Dec. 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. The sales were said to include roughly four-fifths of the village’s 1.5 square miles of farmland and much of its forests.
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. In some cases, officials in Lufeng, the county seat whose territory includes Wukan, were also involved in setting up sales.
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 harbor and a 50-year lease on a large tract of land used as a pig farm.
A plan this year to sell Mr. Chen’s farm and an equal amount of villagers’ farmland to developers of a luxury housing and retail project was the final straw, though, mobilizing villagers to protest. Beyond seeking a public accounting of that project and others like it, angry residents called for democratic elections to replace village officials, many of whom have been in power for decades.
Villagers say they have no idea where the proceeds from any of the sales or rentals went. “From 1993 onward, not one time were we told,” said Lin Zuluan, a protest leader. “No voting, no compensation, nothing. We didn’t even know what was going on.”
Mr. Lin said that most residents, unfamiliar with the workings of a village system, had no idea of their rights. That seems plausible; one recent academic study concluded that three in four residents of villages that had been surveyed had no information about village finances.
In Wukan, villagers did sense that something was wrong, and had complained vigorously — between July 2009 and last March, seven times to Guangdong Province officials and five times to officials of Lufeng, the county seat. But none of those complaints appear to have been addressed.
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.
The trouble, they say, is that almost nobody benefits from a housecleaning — not village leaders or township and county officials enriched by land sales and other corrupt deals. And not higher officials whose influence is only diminished if they get rid of lower-level supplicants.
“What will change things is if you change the incentives by which make you make your money,” said Mr. Friedman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Allowing peasants to own and sell their land — and not a village committee — would suggest a serious effort to break the corruption cycle, he said. So would breaking up the cozy network of village and local government officials who stand to benefit from land sales.
For the moment, at least, those sorts of reforms do not appear to be in the cards. “The vested interests in the present system are very strong,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s a Deng in the office who has enough clout to change things.”