Wukan

What was the most important thing that happened in China this year? The high-speed rail crash and its on-line consequences? Or maybe it’s the slowing down of China’s globalized economy? Or what about Hu Jintao’s speech to his navy chiefs, telling them to “prepare for war”?

Well, any one of these three seems important enough, but what happened in the tiny southern fishing village of Wukan between September and December of this year probably – in the long term – will prove the most significant.

Now, if you’re Chinese, living on the mainland, you probably know and (officially) don’t know what happened between the 21stand 23rdSeptember last. In retrospect it’s a fairly small, fairly common event. Wukan (population 12,000) was a fairly peaceful place… until, that is, local officials sold off village land to real estate developers without compensating the villagers. This happens. This is China, after all, and local government corruption is rife. Only this once the villagers didn’t bow down to the usual wall of threats and bullying. They rebelled. Several thousand of them protested n the main square, then physically attacked the Chinese Communist Party offices.

So why was this different from other protests? Why did it get so heated? One factor was that this was, in effect, a re-run of what had already happened in 2010, when the villagers protested against plans to sell on their farmland. This time – to defuse the situation - they were promised thirteen representatives to argue their case and engage in negotiations with the authorities.

Which was when it all seriously went wrong. In typical fashion, the CCP hit back at the villagers. Five of their representatives were abducted by security agents and one of them, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody and in suspicious circumstances. This set off a whole new wave of violent protest by the villagers, which in its turn resulted in a thousand police arriving at the village – 0n 14thDecember – to put down the unrest. In effect, however, it was a siege, with the police stopping anyone from going in or out, and preventing the villagers from obtaining food.

Which is when the subject – until then a hot item on the Chinese internal internet service – was censored. Official state policy was to not mention what was happening in one of their model villages. Now, to put this in context, there are apparently more than 90,000 incidents of this kind every year in China, where villagers protest against local government corruption. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest problems the Politburo face, and the biggest source of unhappiness (AND UNREST) among their citizens.

This time, however, they failed to keep a lid on events. News leaked out to foreign correspondents, and news items about Wukan were posted – defying the government – which in turn resulted in other nearly villages protesting. Protests that were put down brutally within days.

Only Wukan and its villagers wouldn’t lay down and be quiet. Their protest went on, in defiance not merely of the local authorities, but of the Politburo. Word now was – internally and in the foreign media – that Wukan was the most serious case of mass unrest in China.

Something had to be done. And in the last week of December, that’s what has happened. Senior government officials have gone to Wukan for face-to-face meetings with the representatives of the villagers.

A deal was made, agreements reached. Those arrested were let go. Only by this stage the problem had grown. Villagers in Haimen, 90 minutes drive from Wukan, began a similar sit-in, defying armed police and demanding what the Wukan villagers had demanded – fairness, and freedom from greedy and corrupt local officials. Many observers, looking on, saw this as the opportunity the Politburo were looking for to show their public commitment to fair local government, and to allow them to demonstrate that they were as concerned about social justice as they were about getting rich.  Only this whole business of making deals with aggrieved peasants goes right against the grain for most of the senior CCP members, who believe that it’s their heaven-granted right to tell the people what they want and not the other way about. Their instinct (and we’ve said this several times before) is to crack down. To stamp out. To eradicate opposition. Only they’re afraid this time that it might be the tinder to set off a much greater conflagration. Effectively, to civil war.

What underlines the problem is that Wukan and its villagers were, prior to this, the very embodiment of loyal communist peasantry, and throughout their protests they have stressed their loyalty to the CCP. It is local government corruption they are against, not the Party, and this made it difficult for the Party to crush them – not while the world (and China) was watching.

This is the acid test. Note that I say “is” and not “was”, because agreements in China aren’t always kept, and it’s the Chinese way to wait a while before exacting “vengeance” on those who have made trouble. So we need to keep an eye on Wukan and see what happened next.

Oh, and if you’ve any doubt about what’s been happening, let me quote you from the Telegraph, on December 17th

          “After negotiating with the officials, Miss Xue, her mother and eight other

           family members were taken to the mortuary last Sunday to see Mr Xue’s

           body. ‘We were not allowed cameras or phones and we were accompanied

           by armed police. There were also a group of men in plain clothes who

           had knuckle dusters’, she said.

          ‘In the morgue about 40 policemen came in with us, surrounding us to

          make sure we did not take pictures. They slid his body from the freezer,

          but when they unzipped the bag, there was a bad smell, so we think

          my father cannot have died that morning as they claimed.’

          Miss Xue said her father’s body was covered in bruises and cuts. His

          thumbs were bent and twisted backward.

          A large bruise on his back suggested he had been kicked from behind.

          And the clean state of his clothes suggested to the family that he may

          have been stripped first, and then tortured.

          ‘When we came out, there were two rows of riot police, around fifty

          of them and a dozen police cars. We pleaded for his body but they

          refused, saying it might inflame the village. It is still lying there in the

          morgue.’”

Welcome to modern China!

I’ll be writing more on Wukan in the next week or so. But do look this stuff up, because I’m pretty sure it’s going to run and run, and with the new Politburo coming into power later in 2012, there’s almost certainly going to be clashes between reformers and hard-liners, and Wukan is going to be at the heart of those clashes.

Wikipedia has done a good job of putting together the salient facts, so begin there.

Oh, and an answer of sorts to postings on my last blog. In 2012, getting an American publisher is going to be number one priority. I’d love to see Dave Hartwell at Tor take it on – I’m a great fan of his – but we’ll see. And there will, at least, be a North America publication (in Canada) in a month or so’s time. But I’ll keep you posted.

And thanks to all those who voted in the sf books year’s best vote.

Happy New Year!

David Wingrove                        Friday 30thDecember 2011