China: Rural Unrest Presents Dilemma for Beijing

5 MINS READJan 26, 2012 | 12:07 GMT
Police at a protest in Guangdong Province


The success of a monthslong protest in the rural Chinese village of Wukan has sparked protests over similar issues in Wanggang and Xibian. While these protests all began as disputes over government land seizures, they are noteworthy for their demands for the ouster of local administrative and Communist Party of China (CPC) officials in addition to economic compensation. Rural areas' desire for further autonomy has been a perennial dilemma for Beijing — too conciliatory a response could embolden a grassroots movement outside CPC control, but too strict a response could turn protesters' ire away from local officials and toward the central government.


A few hundred people, evidenced through video, gathered Jan. 19 in the southern Chinese village of Wanggang, a suburb of the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province, to protest corruption by village officials. Villagers are accusing the local Communist Party of China (CPC) secretary, an unelected official ostensibly appointed by upper levels of the Party, of collaborating with local organized criminal elements to make more than 400 million yuan ($63 million) through land seizures and other activities. In addition to demanding adequate compensation for land taken from them, protesters are calling for the removal of Wanggang's Communist Party of China (CPC) secretary.

The Wanggang protesters are citing as inspiration similar protests in Wukan, Guangdong province, which ended Jan. 15 after four months with the ousting of the village committee and the installation of one of the protest's leaders as its new CPC secretary and with promises to organize an elected village committee. Wukan also has inspired a protest in Jinjiang, Fujian province, where hundreds of residents from the village of Xibian decried land seizures while holding a banner reading, "We're learning from Wukan." While these instances of unrest were triggered by land seizures, the growing popularity of Wukan-style protests and the rhetoric of the Wukan model lies in that village's successful efforts to get the central government to allow some measure of self-governance. With the growing concern of legitimacy in rural areas, Beijing is concerned protests could spread further and carry out similar goals. 

The concept of the CPC allowing more autonomy at the village level in rural areas is not a new one. After the economic reforms, which began in 1978, liberalized the rural labor force and invigorated family-based agricultural economy, came a series of supplementary political initiatives throughout the 1980s aimed at keeping the central government abreast of this liberalization. These included abolishing the previous rural administrative bodies, called people's communes, in favor of establishing governance at the county and township levels (though not in individual villages).

However, these changes did little to improve governance at the local level amid a significant economic boom for rural areas. Especially at the village level, tensions between local CPC officials and residents were high, exacerbated by misallocation of land and financial resources, and local officials' continued tight economic and political control over village affairs and day-to-day life. This friction was the subject of an intense policy debate among CPC officials. Introducing some autonomy to rural areas would appease social tensions and increase government responsiveness and accountability, thereby enhancing legitimacy at the rural level, but Beijing did not want the autonomy to go so far out of CPC control that an unregulated body could promote grassroots activities not easily managed by Beijing or that could threaten the party's authority.

The agreed-upon solution was the establishment of village committees — governing bodies elected by residents that existed parallel to unelected local CPC officials, first trailed in 1982, and made into law in the late 1980s. A given committee, and especially the chairperson, held significant powers at the local level, ranging from distributing or leasing village land to controlling financial resources and mediating rural disputes. At the same time, however, Beijing implemented several levers for control over the committees. These included the establishment of CPC-appointed election oversight bodies for each village; rules that allowed the CPC to intervene in the nomination, balloting and voting processes of village committees; and openly encouraging residents to vote for their local CPC secretaries for committee chair, leading to 60 to 80 percent of villages that currently have one person in both positions.

The implementation of village committees did stabilize rural areas and achieve some degree of self-governance, but as the latest unrest shows, the CPC's power over village affairs through unelected officials is a source of lingering tensions.

Politically focused rural unrest is still rare in China — most current and recent protests continue to be over residents' economic security, and even in Wukan's case, the political claim came after months of unresolved economic protests — but the government's conciliatory response thus far has highlighted its dilemma. Beijing is forced to respond to these protests for fear that they could further promote concern over its legitimacy in rural areas. If Wukan-style protests spread, the CPC will need to rethink its strategy for holding authority over rural areas: Tighter Party controls have only further encouraged unrest thus far, but a strategy of appeasement runs the risk of emboldening potential protesters elsewhere. Alternatively, too strict a response could turn protesters' focus from their local officials toward the central government. Stratfor will thus continue to watch for the rise of protesting with goals similar to Wukan in Guangdong and elsewhere. 

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