December 19, 2011

China's Wukan Seige: Could Beijing Resort to Force with Escalating Social Unrest?

Wukan villagers with protest banners
demanding justice from Beijing for
the land cheated out of them
(Source: The Telegraph)
By Stratfor Global Intelligence

China Director Jennifer Richmond discusses the recent protests in Wukan, Guangdong province, and the characteristics that set them apart from previous incidents of social unrest in China. (Watch CNN news video below covering  Wukan protests added by EconMatters)

After months of protests in the village of Wukan in Guangdong province, which started on Sept. 21, the situation escalated this weekend when one of the protest leaders died in custody. Authorities have blockaded the village in an attempt to control the situation while a solution is worked out. As China’s economy slows dissatisfaction grows proportionately and we expect even more incidents in the future.

Reports on Dec. 14 indicate the village cadres — many of whom left Wukan in November as the protests continued and are now suspected of violating discipline —are being held by the Lufeng City Commission.

A common tactic in these protests is to seek provincial or central government intervention. The slow reaction to the protests only lead to an escalation, which is now trying to be redressed with both a show of force and some sort of conciliation to villager demands.

The protests in Wukan began months ago when the Fengtian Livestock company and Country Garden collaborated to use disputed land for development. The villagers claimed the land for their agricultural uses.

This is just one of many protests involving land grabs that have been heightened over the past few years as a result of China’s real estate boom and urbanization, which local governments rely on to boost their incomes.

So why is this one any different? There are several things about this protest that have caught our attention.

First, the duration. The villagers have maintained these protests for over several months. Usually these protests die down when local officials are able to buy off a handful of people or strike some sort of negotiation.

Second, the numbers. Although the protesters themselves only amount to a thousand or so citizens, the entire village of approximately 20,000 appears united in its stance against the local government.

And third, the response. The protests lead to the retreat of village officials and the cordoning off of the entire village from any ingoing or outgoing traffic. Although we’ve seen this tactic employed at least once before in Zhejiang province, it is not common and therefore notable.

As we’ve always stated before, many of these protests are local and can be contained locally. Ultimately they pose little threat to the central government. However, we’ve noted several incidents, including the recent protests over a factory in Dalian, where the local government has capitulated to citizen demands.

People look to Beijing to intervene against corrupt local officials, and Beijing is often able to shield itself from criticism by setting itself apart from local governments that are most often the targets of social unrest.

As China’s economy slows — and we are witnessing a rapidly slowing economy as Europe’s economic turmoil affects China’s exports — protests increase and put increasing pressure on Beijing to manage local uprisings with dwindling economic resources.

As similar protests occur throughout the country, and if they demonstrate the same level of solidarity as in Wukan, Beijing will be forced to respond and will do so through a mixture of force and incentives.

If Beijing mishandles these protests — and the margin for error increases as the protests expand and become more united — the focus could turn to the central government. Further, if protest tactics are able to increasingly force a favorable response for the citizens, they become emboldened. In the end, Beijing will not hesitate to resort to force, especially if the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party comes into question.

EconMatters Note: Wukan Village reportedly has become self-governed and completely outside of the central government's control after the villagers kicked out the last government official on 12 Dec.  This is totally unprecedented since Mao took over the Mainland in 1949.  

Wukan is a fishing village of approximately 20,000, and has now been cut off food, electricity, and half of the water supplies.  British paper the Telegraph so far was the only foreign media managed to send a reporter into the village and described the Party has lost all control in a situation of open revolt.  Any news about Wukan is heavily censored by China's Great Firewall.       


Courtesy Stratfor Global Intelligence (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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