Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Village revolt could be a harbinger for China - my humanities class

BEIJING: China's state media has been all but mute on Occupy Wukan; on why 13,000 citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake the village in Guangdong province.

But the 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 same sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.

Analyst Li Fan estimated in an interview that 50 to 60 per cent 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 non-profit research centre based in Beijing that has extensively studied local election and governance issues.

On paper, the Wukan protests should never 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 central 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.

But 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 effort to raise extra money, for things like economic development, usually needs 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 keep watch over the village books - have turned out, in practice, to be easily manipulated by those who really hold the power.

'Land sales are where the big money is,' said political science professor Edward Friedman, who is also a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. '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 northern Shanxi province, spent 2 million yuan (S$408,000) to campaign for an office that paid 347 yuan a month, the Chinese journal Legal News reported at the time.

In interviews this month, leaders of the Wukan protests said it was common knowledge that local government and Communist Party officials had spent millions of yuan 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, Mr Xue Chang, who had held office since 1970 before being replaced amid Wukan resident protests in September.

Although a village in legal terms, Wukan is bigger than most such entities. It sits in urban Guangdong province, abutting a natural harbour on the Pacific Ocean that is ideal for development.

Even before the residents chased their village committee leaders from town on Dec 11, the committee's accounting ledger had been taken away, ostensibly for an audit.

Leaders of the protest contend, however, that the village committee systematically sold off or granted long-term leases to nearly 60 per cent of the village's 28.5 sq km over an 18-year period beginning in 1993. The sales were said to include roughly four-fifths of the village's 3.9 sq km of farmland and much of its forests.

The land went to hotels, homes, factories, power companies and even private funerary temples. One wealthy villager, Mr Chen Wenqing, gained a business interest in Wukan's harbour 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, mobilising villagers to protest against the move. Beyond seeking a public accounting of that project and others like it, angry residents have 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.

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 March this year, seven times to Guangdong province officials and five times to officials of Lufeng, the county seat. But none of those complaints appeared 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, the uprising in Wukan highlighted systemic defects in China's local governments, and only a house cleaning - not an isolated slap on the wrist - will address them.

The trouble, they say, is that almost nobody benefits from a house cleaning - 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 you make your money,' said Professor Friedman. 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.