A Village in Revolt Could Be a Harbinger for China

Published on New York Times NYT, by MICHAEL WINES, December 25, 2011.

BEIJING — 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 … //

… 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.” (full long 2 pages text).

(Mia Li contributed research from Beijing, and Shi Da from Wukan).

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