The stand-off between the villagers of Wukan and the state appears to have ended in a tentative agreement over some of their grievances, but constitutes part of the wider crisis for the Chinese state.
Villagers in Wukan in southern China have been running their own affairs through a democratically elected committee since they drove local officials and police away in late September, but the village has recently been blockaded by police.
The Financial Times compared the situation to the early days of the Paris Commune, and certainly the features of direct democracy, the sharing of tasks communally and the state of siege, do show parallels. Last week one of the leaders, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody; the police claimed he died of a heart attack, but relatives said his body showed signs of beatings, and the police refused to release the body.
The fundamental grievances of the villagers concern the illegal sale of their land by local officials in deals with developers – something which happens all too frequently in China. The difference in this case is the sustained protest of the villagers, the backdrop of the world crisis which is leading to a wave of strikes in the region and other industrial areas of China, and also evident conflicts within the central leadership of the Communist Party over how to deal with it all (linked to pending changes in the leadership itself with factions vying for position). The deal apparently involves promises to release three more of the village activists and to investigate the death of Xue Jinbo.
The crucial difference with the Paris Commune is, crudely, that Wukan is a village, not the capital of a country, with all the implications that difference implies. While the self-organisation at Wukan was extremely impressive, there were few signs of a political perspective beyond hoping that the central government would intervene to impose a settlement against the local officials; this could be seen as the ‘Emperor is badly advised’ position but also it was not without some foundation, as it is characteristic of the way China is run that the central bureaucracy has allowed local bureaucrats to profit enormously from the marketization process, but sometimes steps in to curb their excesses. Corruption is widespread, but it can be punished in individual cases with prison or even execution.
It is hardly surprising that village disputes can both be extremely determined (and often violent) but also lacking in wider political aims or strategy – this characteristic was observed by Marx, who argued that peasants needed the leadership of an urban class. Trotsky developed this in the theory of permanent revolution to argue that in overwhelmingly peasant countries it was possible for a small urban working class to take power at the head of the rural masses.
This is indeed what happened in 1917 in Russia – it was no accident that the key slogans were ‘Bread, Peace and Land’. Tony Cliff further extended the theory (deflected permanent revolution) to account for the phenomenon of urban middle class intellectuals – organised in nationalist and often Stalinist political parties – seizing power by mobilising rural discontent. This was of course what happened in China in the late nineteen forties, so arguably the Communist Party of China ought to understand peasant revolt.
What has made Wukan distinct from the many other village struggles against the alienation of land in recent years is the wider context of strikes and other resistance that is occurring – for example over environmental issues. Just this week, thousands of people closed a highway in Haimen, only about 100km from Wukan, and fought the riot police in protest against a polluting power plant which is damaging fish stocks and causing a high incidence of cancer. In Beijing there is increasing discontent over the extremely high levels of particulate pollution and the fact that the government refuses to publish proper data and issues bulletins talking of ‘slight pollution’ when people are choking in smog. People can see a direct contradiction between government pronouncements and their own experience, often a radicalising factor.
The central leadership is therefore acting to pacify Wukan – though how many of its promises will be kept remains to be seen – before any real links can be made on a wider stage. At the same time, it is tightening censorship, passing regulations insisting that those who post on the main Chinese Twitter equivalent, Weibo, must register their real names and identity card numbers. They have feared Weibo and other similar services because of the speed with which news can be reposted before it can be censored.